The external cost of guns v. smoking

A quick post on the cost of smoking v. cost of guns, given the intuitive notion that second hand smoke and violence might be (conceptually) similar. I am not an expert on guns, and this is a quick post, given as food for thought.

I have done work on the social cost of cigarette smoking, and we estimated the cost per pack in to be ~$40 (in year 2000 dollars):

  • $33/pack was private costs, mostly borne by the smoker through shortened life
  • $5.50/pack was quasi-external costs, borne mostly by the spouse through shortened life via second hand smoke (and smaller amounts for children, who are exposed for shorter periods)
  • $1.50 of external costs net of excise taxes which is the summation (positive and negative) of many sources: third party health insurance, Social Security, private life insurance markets, etc.

My colleague at Duke Phil Cook (along with Jens Ludwig at Chicago) have done work on the cost of gun ownership, and estimated what they call the social cost of a an additional household acquiring 1 gun to range from

  • $100-$1,800/year per gun

Note that they use the term social cost, but I understand what they have done to focus on external costs only. Key to their sensitivity analysis is whether and how you value fear, worry, etc. related to gun violence, which has certainly been heightened this past week. If you include that, you get to the high end, and if not nearer the low end (there are other things going on in the sensitivity analysis, including findings from the literature that the value of life years lost of those most typically killed with guns is lower than the average death, controlling for age).

A few points about Cook and Ludwig’s analysis.

  • framed against the smoking work above, Cook and Ludwig focus on external costs as I say. This misses the internal costs associated with suicide, or quasi-external costs if a gun is used by a family member for suicide. As we conceptualized smoking, domestic violence homicide would also be a quasi-external cost, which I don’t think could be teased out from what they did. I am sure there are some complicated factors of attempted v. completed suicide, and the choice of method is endogenous, etc.
  • They use percentage of suicides via a gun in a county as a baseline proxy for gun ownership, and look at changes in gun ownership and changes in murder; they are assigning the cost of an additional household becoming a gun owning household
  • They find that increased gun prevalence increases murder, but not other violent crimes (more guns add lethality)
  • The larger estimates above include gun injuries, which have larger social costs than deaths given how the literature values lost life years due to gun homicide [see Viscusi 1998 on this issue]
  • Murders among persons age 15-19 are more sensitive to increased gun supply, which they surmise increases illegal guns (for example, bought by gangs on the streets)

Summing up, the external costs of smoking for a 2 pack per day smoking in would be ~$1,000 (in year 2000 dollars; 365x2x$1.50/pack external cost), near the midpoint for the estimate of external costs of a marginal gun that Cook and Ludwig identify. In smoking, the private costs overwhelm via the value of shortened life, and in gun deaths lost life is also the major cost. Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., and results in ~ 10 times more death annually than do firearms (435,000 v. 30,000 in year 2000) so the costs of smoking would be expected to be much larger than the cost of guns, with the magnitude of this calculation being sensitive to how one values lost years of life.

You could think about how to convert the cost per pack and the cost of an additional gun per year to try and estimate the optimal amount for a gun buy back program, or similarly, the amount society should be willing to pay a smoker to quit, but I am not going to do it now.

cross posted at freeforall


PJ Cook, J Ludwig. The Social Cost of Gun Ownership. Journal of Public Economics 2006;90:371-390.

Frank A. Sloan, Jan Ostermann, Gabriel Picone, Christopher Conover and Donald H. Taylor, Jr. The Price of Smoking. MIT Press: 2004. The Price of Smoking is available as an ebook.

Viscusi, WK. 1998. Rational Risk Policy. Oxford University Press, New York.

update: edited the $2000 to (in year 2000 dollars)

Author: Don Taylor

Don Taylor is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, where his teaching and research focuses on health policy, with a focus on Medicare generally, and on hospice and palliative care, specifically. He increasingly works at the intersection of health policy and the federal budget. Past research topics have included health workforce and the economics of smoking. He began blogging in June 2009 and wrote columns on health reform for the Raleigh, (N.C.) News and Observer. He blogged at The Incidental Economist from March 2011 to March 2012. He is the author of a book, Balancing the Budget is a Progressive Priority that will be published by Springer in May 2012.

27 thoughts on “The external cost of guns v. smoking”

      1. There’s another $2000 in your “Summing up” paragraph. Also, it took me a while to understand where your ~$1000 number came from. It might be more clear as $1000/year.

  1. Technically, most guns have no external cost at all, because they are used by their owner in ways which don’t generate such costs. The external cost is a cost of behaviors, not guns.

    1. marvelous modifier that word “technically.”

      Technically, most cigarettes have no external cost at all. The external cost is a cost of behaviors, not cigarettes.

      Technically, most alcoholic beverages have no external cost at all. The external cost is a cost of behaviors, not alcoholic beverages.

      Technically, most applications of asbestos have no external cost at all. The external cost is a cost of behaviors, not asbestos.

      Technically, most illegal drugs have no external cost at all. The external cost is a cost of behaviors, not illegal drugs.

      Technically, most defective products have no external cost at all. The external cost is a cost of behaviors, not defective products.

      once you get rolling it’s hard to stop.

  2. The difference being that while almost all tobacco users engage in behaviors which generate those external costs, almost all gun owners do NOT.

    Yes, behavior has external costs, not inanimate objects. Attributing the costs of volitional behavior to inanimate objects is just a way of pretending there’s something about the object that’s the problem, when the problem is something about the person.

    When the real costs are being imposed by specific people. Who are perfectly capable, assuming you could deny them the object, of imposing the costs by some other means, because the costs are intentional.

    Wake up from your demon haunted dreams, and face the real world, where objects don’t cause problems, people do.

    1. my dreams are more entertaining than haunted and when i face the real world i see a place wherein one is around 16 times more likely to be intentionally killed by a gun than by a blunt object, a place wherin one is around 9 times more likely to be intentionally killed by a gun than with a knife, a place wherein one is around 1.3 times more likely to be intentionally killed by a gun than by all other modes of intentional killing combined. and that doesn’t even factor in the number of unintentional deaths by firearms that happen each year. i’m not the one engaged in fantasy here.

    2. Not always imposed by specific people intentionally. One of my biggest concerns is guns that are improperly secured being used by children who find them and have no intention of killing themselves or their best friend when they pick up those guns. Or a trigger happy neighborhood watch turns lethal because the gun makes it easy to shoot first and ask questions later. Or the homeowner who keeps a gun at home for self-defense but is over-powered by an intruder and has the gun turned agains them. Are there no controls you could ever imagine being acceptable on gun or ammunition manufacture or individual ownership?

    3. Gun possession modifies the capacities people are capable of exercising. The presence or absence of capacities modifies the actions that people take. To think that the capacities people have immediately at hand do not affect the behaviors they partake in is sheer stupidity.

      Guns are directly instrumental in escalating conflict and the lethality of conflict situations in which they are present. This is why domestic violence is 12 times as likely to end in death in households with guns compared to those without. They are also allegedly useful in de-escalating conflict or engaging in self-defense. But some evidence suggests that guns are more often used to intimidate, threaten, and escalate conflict than they are used in acts of self defense, even if one restricts oneself to analysis of reported defensive gun use, leaving out reported gun victimizations.

    4. It seems to be a matter of perspective. I have lived in a “gun owning household” every single day of my life. My dad grew up in a gun owning household, and was taught to hunt as a young teen and owned at least one on the day his first son was born. When I was growing up, he owned (and still does) a semi-automatic shotgun, a semi-automatic deer rifle, and a small-caliber revolver. He raised three boys. He taught us hunting. He bought me my gun when I was 14 after I had established a two-year track record of responsible and safe supervised gun use. That gun has shared space in my various households ever since. Where I live, this is a common story. We all grew up with guns. It’s as much natural part of the environment as an axe or a chain saw for cutting and splitting logs.

      I’d estimate conservatively that at least 20% of the people I work with (and probably more that I don’t know about) carry firearms everywhere they go, either in their vehicle or carried on their person, usually concealed (and in those cases always with a legal permit to do so). Semi-automatic handguns are very popular. The other day I dropped by the R&D shop and there was an AR-15 leaned up against a corner. Food and drink are not allowed in work areas, but firearms are. This is tech work servicing the navigation, guidance control (autopilot), communications, weather radar, and collision-avoidance avionics that assure the safety of the flying public.

      I think I can confidently say that very few around here suffer much from fear, worry, etc. related to gun violence, certainly less than the average person might suffer from fear, worry, etc. related to injury or death from traffic accidents, simply because guns are as ubiquitous as cars and we know the car accident scenario is the more likely of the two because we all at least know somebody who has actually experienced one of those, as opposed to any threat of gun violence. From this perspective, those estimated external costs seem incredibly high. From the perspective of a young boy growing up in a gang-infested area, the cost estimate probably seems low. From a fear-of-the-unfamiliar viewpoint, it might sound about right.

      1. “very few around here suffer much from fear, worry, etc. related to gun violence”
        After reading all that, it sounds like y’all are *intensely* worried about gun violence. Me, I never think about violence. I don’t wear a helmet when I drive either, though. I probably should.

        1. I can understand how it may look that way from your perspective. From mine, we’re not worried much at all about gun violence because we experience a great deal of non-violent exposure to guns on a daily basis and for almost all of us, zero personal exposure to violent gun usage.

          To clarify, the AR-15 in the corner I mentioned wasn’t there to defend an R&D lab on the far edges of suburbia abutting farm country. An employee had brought it to show to another who wanted to admire it after hearing that the owner had been contemplating adding it to his collection, and decided to buy now before any revived assault weapons ban being demanded by the left were implemented. I have to admit, my first thought upon seeing it was that it is an elegant piece of hardware. There was no feeling of “oh sh*t, look at that big bad gun”.

          From my perspective it seems that my gun enthusiast friends and co-workers are concerned with preserving their liberties, as least as much as their lives. For whatever reason, they enjoy owning and shooting their guns and would prefer to remain free to do so responsibly.

  3. “When the real costs are being imposed by specific people. Who are perfectly capable, assuming you could deny them the object, of imposing the costs by some other means, because the costs are intentional.”

    I guess with tobacco, “denying the object” leads to burning coal or wood or something. And with guns, using machetes or something?

    I dunno – I’m not a gun-banner by temperament but this seems weak. I smoke, for now – it’s hard to quit – but recognize there are external costs to that, and don’t try to blame the health police for pointing out that that’s so, and making me pay in various ways.

    In other words, there’s a way to go before hitting tyranny, or anything close, on either front. If you ask me, as a smoker who enjoys shooting guns occasionally. YMMV

    7 October, the COT meeting on 26 October and the COC meeting on 18
    November 2004.

    “5. The Committees commented that tobacco smoke was a highly complex chemical mixture and that the causative agents for smoke induced diseases (such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, effects on reproduction and on offspring) was unknown. The mechanisms by which tobacco induced adverse effects were not established. The best information related to tobacco smoke – induced lung cancer, but even in this instance a detailed mechanism was not available. The Committees therefore agreed that on the basis of current knowledge it would be very difficult to identify a toxicological testing strategy or a biomonitoring approach for use in volunteer studies with smokers where the end-points determined or biomarkers measured were predictive of the overall burden of tobacco-induced adverse disease.”

    In other words … our first hand smoke theory is so lame we can’t even design a bogus lab experiment to prove it. In fact … we don’t even know how tobacco does all of the magical things we claim it does.

    The greatest threat to the second hand theory is the weakness of the first hand theory.

    Not 1 Death or Sickness Etiologically Assigned to Tobacco. All the diseases attributed to smoking are also present in non smokers. It means, in other words, that they are multifactorial, that is, the result of the interaction of tens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of factors, either known or suspected contributors – of which smoking can be one!

    1. HR is “harleyrider” who posts this boilerplate everywhere possible.

      No one’s allowed to say anything about tobacco without getting spammed by this semi-literate Kentucky tobacco farmer’s screeds.

      1. Are you afraid of open debate and facts that dont conform to your prohibitionist agenda. When we dig into the so called mountain of evidence we find its all junk science based upon magical statistical contrived studies. Its especially true of the second hand smoke Junk Science. Then when I dug into the so called Tobacco related diseases there again we find no actual proof of causation but more manipulated statistical black magic! Weve been told for years it causes yet we find theres no such proof at all! Thats not only eye opening its a game changer……….How long has the lie been going on,since the beginning and the last anti-tobacco movement in 1900-1927 when 43 states had smoking bans out of 45. Then by 1927 Nevada repeals the last statewide smoking ban on the books so ending the anti-tobacco movement until the 1950s when it started all over again even using the SG office as an early platform to push their JUNK SCIENCE! Todays nothing more than 100 years ago brought into a new century.

        1. Are you afraid people will find out who you really are, and the nature of your vituperative spam campaign?

          >> When we dig into the so called mountain of evidence

          Who is “we?” Tobacco farmers? Tobacco companies? Astro-turf ad agencies? You don’t say.

          All we know is “we” are not scientists. “Junk” is in the eye of the beholder!

  5. Where the Tobacco Control prohibitionists lose any credence is when we see the actual chemical composition of second hand smoke and wow what a surprise when we see it from the SG report of 1989!

    About 90% of secondary smoke is composed of water vapor and ordinary air with a minor amount of carbon dioxide. The volume of water vapor of second hand smoke becomes even larger as it quickly disperses into the air,depending upon the humidity factors within a set location indoors or outdoors. Exhaled smoke from a smoker will provide 20% more water vapor to the smoke as it exists the smokers mouth.

    4 % is carbon monoxide.

    6 % is those supposed 4,000 chemicals to be found in tobacco smoke. Unfortunatley for the smoke free advocates these supposed chemicals are more theorized than actually found.What is found is so small to even call them threats to humans is beyond belief.Nanograms,picograms and femptograms……
    (1989 Report of the Surgeon General p. 80).

  6. Perhaps a sounder way of approaching the social costs of weapons would be to segment the gun-owning population. If what people are saying above is accurate, then the social cost of a properly-secured weapon owned by a properly-trained individual who propagates that training to others in their household is negligible, but the social cost of the (relatively) small number of weapons where those conditions are violated is up in the thousands or tens of thousands per year per gun. Which suggests that some kind of market process for internalizing those social costs could be very effective. (Imagine, just for a hypothetical example, if gun dealers who provided free safes and sold only to people who had completed an NRA-certified firearms safety course could get coverage against catastrophic liability for use of the weapons they sold, while dealers who didn’t take such obvious precautions couldn’t.)

    1. The basic problem you’ve got with attempting that, is that almost all the social cost is coming from criminals. And you can’t really avoid making legal sales to criminals, since a fair number of them have no records, and thus are legally indistinguishable from the law abiding until the first time they’re caught and convicted.

      Putting liablity on acts which can’t, as a practical matter, be avoided if one is to make legal sales, is just a way of fining the exercise and facilitation of a civil liberty. Not acceptable. Might as well have strict liablity for people who sell paper to counterfieters.

      1. Huh? Are you replying to my suggestion that liability should have something to do seeing that people observe basic safety rules, or just blathering? (I just saw a link, btw, to a store about a gun store whose “inventory control problems” led to dozens of weapons disappearing, ostensibly without any knowledge by store management. That kind of thing would lead to civil liability in pretty much any other context.)

        1. One quibble is terminology. To me, social cost means: private (gun owner), quasi-external (household), and external (society at large). Cook and Ludwig use social=external and that is what the post was about….the costs of suicide are relevant if you are thinking of the social or full cost of guns, as are the costs of domestic violence homicide. I am sure there could be tricky issues related to determining whether there is a background rate of suicide and trying to estimate ‘extra’ suicide via gun due to lethality,and the choice of suicide method is endogenous to intent I am sure. From a public policy standpoint, addressing external costs is obvious; I think so to are addressing the private and quasi external costs. The book cited on smoking costs discuss these issues re smoking in some detail, but I haven’t thought about them as much for guns/gun violence

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