Even when Tom Stoppard talks nonsense – and let’s not forget Stoppard was an early supporter of Rupert Murdoch – he often points to key issues. Keith’s citation of Stoppard’s witticism about how smoking makes sense since immortality isn’t an option anyway raises three of them:
1. Yes, none of us is going to live forever, and the length of a lifespan is only one argument in the objective function. It’s reasonable to trade off longevity against other goals. A life with a finite span can’t actually be “infinitely” valuable.
2. As an empirical matter, smoking does a lot more than shorten life. Smoking also damages health, so smokers’ lives are less pleasant as well as shorter than they would otherwise be. And no, the life-years aren’t all “taken off the end;” smoking roughly doubles mortality at every age.
3. Nicotine delivers substantial benefits along with its costs: it helps people calm down when they’re anxious and speed up when they’re lethargic. No other drug delivers those dual benefits. The e-cigarette, which delivers nicotine by lung but without doing so in a cloud of toxins, provides virtually all of the pleasures of smoking – except to those for whom the “flavor” of cigarette smoke is a secondary reinforcer via its Pavlovian association with the nicotine jolt – with a tiny fraction of the health damage. Sensible public policy would tax actual cigarettes to the point of extinction while pushing hard for e-cigarette substitution. But the tobacco companies and the anti-smoking crusaders are about equally hostile toward such a common-sense approach.
Footnote And no, I don’t think we should wait until someone has done the clinical trials. We know plenty about the health damage from nicotine alone, and the numbers aren’t impressive. And the e-cigarette delivers nicotine alone. Seems to me it’s up to those who claim it might be harmful enough to worry about to come up with some data.