The truth about smoking – it saves the public purse a lot of money

Ed Miliband is expected to propose a new tax on tobacco companies – possibly levied according to market share – in his Labour Party conference speech to help fund greater spending on the National Health Service. Fair enough, you might say. The tobacco companies cost the NHS, and therefore the public purse, an awful lot of money. Wrong.

I know this because I once heard it from the mouth of Professor Sir Richard Doll, no less, the man whose research originally proved the link between smoking and lung cancer. Many years ago, I happened to be at a lunch he was hosting for some particularly passionate representatives of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health). I was a smoker at the time, so kept pretty quiet, I can tell you, not for fear of upsetting them by defending the individual’s right to smoke, but for worry that they might smell the nicotine on my breath.

In any case, they bored for America on all the sins of tobacco, including its alleged cost to the public purse in treating the various health conditions associated with smoking. Actually that’s not the case, piped up Professor Doll. “Tobacco smokers will on average have reduced life expectancy, and are quite likely to die before they become a burden on the state and the rest of society. What’s more they tend to die quite quickly, so their medical costs are not off the scale, compared with keeping, say, an eighty year old alive. The economy will have had the benefit of their productive life, but few of the costs of their inactive ones”.

This explanation left the ASH brigade quite speechless, which was a merciful release for all of us. I wouldn’t advocate smoking as a form of enforced euthanasia, but let’s get our facts right here. Tobacco companies have many faults, but they are not a cost to society.