The cost of smoking
by David Mason
The study of smoking and smoking cessation continues to be plagued by bad science. A recent study in the journal Tobacco Control reported that each smoker costs an American employer $5,800 per year on average.
This does not seem unreasonable until you start to look at how the figure was arrived at. Most of the cost is estimated as lost productivity due to leaving work to go outside and smoke. Then there are the sick days taken by smokers; increased health care costs for the employer, offset by the reduced pension costs due to smokers dying earlier; and lower productivity during working time due to withdrawal symptoms,.
It was this last one that caused me to query these figures. How does a smoker get withdrawal symptoms if they are still smoking? According to the researchers every smoker gets withdrawal symptoms within thirty minutes of putting out their last smoke. Having interviewed thousands of smokers this idea just doesn't stand up to checking. Many people smoke in the morning and then don't smoke all day if they are busy at work: they just forget to smoke. Are we to believe that they are suffering withdrawal symptoms all this time? It doesn't make sense.
Then there is the issue of does smoking more cost the employer more. This is not addressed because the researchers didn't actually speak to any smokers. They read and analysed what other academics had written about smokers. That analysis is how they arrived at the main cost. They did not actually measure how long workers took to go and smoke, they estimated from their reading that smokers would take five fifteen minute breaks during an eight hour day. It strikes me as astonishing that anyone would create an estimate of work time lost without measuring how long smokers actually took for their smoke breaks.
And once you start questioning the method, other issues come up. If smokers are to blamed for loss of work time, what about sports players, who lose time at work through injuries, pains, sprains and so on. I am no apologist for smokers, but if you are costing in smoking time, you also need to cost in the benefits of smoking to the smoker. Many smokers use the time to review what they have to done, or to plan the next move, or just calm down from a stressful situation. What about value of the ideas exchanged between groups of smokers as they congregate socially outside? I am sure that you can come up with your own list of objections.
The flaws in the reported methodology, in my view, make this 'scientific' report unusable. Sadly, too much research into smoking is done by non-smokers speculating about what smokers might be doing and thinking, and not enough is done by studying smokers' behaviour.
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