Some years ago, to my distress, one of my sons began to smoke. "Can you believe it?" I hyperventilated to a friend. "I tell you, I could kill him."
"You won't have to," was her dry reply.
I don't know what could have stopped him from addicting himself. Maybe nothing at all. But study after study has shown that the single most powerful deterrent to smoking is raising the price of a pack of cigarettes, says Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
This is especially true among the young (my son started at 15) -- and that's when tobacco usually catches them. Ninety percent of today's adult smokers were hooked before they reached 18.
Every day, 3,000 teens under 18 smoke their first cigarette, according to the American Lung Association in Washington, D.C. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that teen smoking has risen for the past five years in a row.
A pack of brand-name cigarettes costs an average of around $2 (the range last year was $1.56 to $2.75, depending on state taxes, says the American Cancer Society). Legislation passed this summer will raise the federal excise tax by 15 cents between now and 2002.
That's small stuff -- not enough of a price change to matter to many kids.
Still, even at $2.15 a pack, smoking is far more expensive than most people realize. A 20-year, pack-a-day habit might deprive you of $39,000, assuming you could have invested that money at 8 percent, according to Tom Ochsenschlager of the accounting firm Grant Thornton.
Big Tobacco is trying to strike a deal with the government. The companies say they'd pay $368.5 billion over 25 years, principally to settle lawsuits brought by dead smokers' families and to repay state Medicaid programs for funds spent on smoking-related illnesses. (Those payments would be deductible, so taxpayers would cover part of the tab.)
The proposed settlement could raise the cost of a pack of cigarettes by 62 cents and lower teen smoking by 18 percent over the next 10 years, according to estimates by Dr. Jeffrey Harris, a health economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The tobacco deal, however, calls for the industry to lower teen smoking by 60 percent over the next 10 years. To get that additional drop in use, we're supposed to rely on cigarette-advertising restrictions and modest anti-smoking campaigns, which might not work.
The obvious market solution -- the capitalist way -- is to raise the price of cigarette smoking even more. A price increase of about $1.50 should do it, in the view of Dr. David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, and former Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop. Kennedy is pushing a straight $1.50 tax; President Clinton has offered a more complex way of applying it.
The direct expense of cigarettes isn't your only smoking cost. A 35-year-old male smoker might pay State Farm Insurance an extra $150 a year for a comprehensive medical insurance policy with a $1,000 deductible. That's worth $7,500 over 20 years, if invested at 8 percent interest.
A female smoker would lose around $12,000, because her health insurance is more expensive.
In addition, smokers have more out-of-pocket medical expenses and more lost work due to asthma and other diseases.
Life insurance is yet another cost. Over 20 years, a 35-year-old man who smokes might pay $280 a year more for whole-life insurance and $250 extra for term insurance. In terms of lost savings, he'll have smoked away $12,000 to $14,000.
Adding up all these costs, a 35-year-old man could have had around $60,000 more in his retirement account, just by breaking free of his pack a day.
Cynics argue that he's not going to need the money. On average, a 35-year-old smoker will die four years earlier than someone who's clean, according to the actuarial consulting firm Tillinghast in Chicago.
At any age, smokers have twice the death rate of people who don't smoke, actuary William Carroll of the American Council of Life Insurance told my associate, Kate O'Brien Ahlers. Wouldn't you rather keep more kids alive? If raising the tax on cigarettes by $1.50 would help, I'm all for it.
As for my son, now 35 -- he's trying to stop (again). My fingers are crossed.