Math & The Mother Of All Cigarette Bans

Recently, The Economist ran this article about a new law to rid the land of Nebuchadnezzar from the the dangers of secondhand puffing by introducing legislation to nix lighting up within the four walls of all public institutions.

How’d it work for them?  Here’s a sampling of the hyperbolic reaction greeting the new measure:

“My cousin was recently murdered by terrorists, my neighbour was tortured by the police, my electricity is cut for most of the day, the same is true in most hospitals in the city. And they are worried about smoking?”

“Bring back Saddam. We were free to smoke anywhere then.”

“Prisons are public buildings, right? So will they now prevent guards from stubbing out cigarettes on the arms, legs and backs of inmates?”

Wowzers.  That all being said, the key fact behind the bill is that smoking is responsible for 55 Babylonian deaths a day, as opposed to 10 for insurgent-related shootings and bombings.   A 10-death-daily toll is still way too high for my little green-lawned and shrubberied suburban mind to comprehend, but it’s still a lot safer to face the jihad than to make a habit of sparking up a Camel.   Of course, that just doesn’t feel right, now does it?

This gap between feeling and thinking illustrates a greater principle:  People are pretty bad at setting priorities.

Ever since reading the book Innumeracy, I’ve been fascinated by the odds underlying life as we know it.  In his book, author John Allen Paulos makes the case that the average person can’t apply basic math to everyday decisions.  This results in much idiocy and hullabaloo.

Freakonomics mined much of the same turf when it famously pointed out that swimming pools are much more lethal than pistols, yet we joyfully take the kids swimming and fear them finding a gun.  And we can listen to Dave Ramsey run the figures all day and then go out and still slowly swipe ourselves into debt and depression.

I’m as guilty as anybody when it comes to ignoring the numbers.  Not in my head, mind you, but somewhere in that emotional part of the back of the brain where opinions are formed and next steps are felt-through rather than thought-out.  But I’m not alone.  There’s a growing field of study known as Behavioral Economics that’s been endeavoring to figure it all out.  A guy named Barack Obama channeled it to great success last year with a little campaign called “Hope & Change”, so it might be on to something.

Another resource I’d highly recommend is the BBC documentary The Century Of The Self which describes the revolution on Madison Avenue a few generations back, when Freud’s Id was tapped to sell us what we want instead of what we need.

Spock we are not.  That’s not a bad thing, but a little self-awareness might do us some good while we attempt to “live long and prosper.”

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