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Could smoking save Social Security?

Could smoking save Social Security?

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Medicare is going broke. There are disagreements about when it will be completely broke and how it can be fixed — really, if it can be fixed — but everybody agrees it's going broke.

Same thing with Social Security. Private pensions, too. More and more companies are opting out of the pension business. 401(k) plans are the new thing.

For the most part, only public employees enjoy "defined benefit" pension plans, and that burden is becoming too much for state and local governments.

Just as baby boomers are preparing to retire, the whole notion of retirement is getting fuzzy.

Why not have a smoke and think about this?

Yes, a nice calming smoke. Tap that cigarette against the table, put it in your mouth, light it up, inhale, hold that smoke for a few seconds, and now, slowly exhale. You feel better, don't you? You look cool, too. You really do. Sophisticated.

I am not suggesting that cigarettes will solve all of our problems, but think about Medicare and Social Security and pensions. Why are all these things in trouble? Why is the whole notion of retirement so problematic?

Because people live too long.

Nobody disputes that. When Social Security was founded, few people lived much past 65. Many workers didn't live long enough to collect any Social Security. Those who did make it to retirement lived only a few years. A system like that will work.

When large numbers of people live 20 years past retirement, the system begins to break down. Obviously, the same thing happens with private pensions.

What if somebody were to devise a product that people could voluntarily take and would cut 10 or 15 years off their life expectancy? What if they would not only voluntarily take the product, but would pay hefty taxes on the product while they took it?

We already have that product. We just don't appreciate it.

I thought about this when I saw the story last week that St. Louis County is spending $7.6 million from a federal stimulus grant to launch what is being called a "major assault" on smoking.

You don't have to be a libertarian to think that government ought not concern itself with people's private habits.

Let's try to be dispassionate about this. Some personal choices should be discouraged. Drinking and driving, for instance. In the first place, you can kill or maim somebody else. In the second place, you can kill or maim yourself.

Society has legitimate reasons for discouraging this behavior. We do not want people to die in their 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s. Those are their productive years. Those are the years during which they have family responsibilities.

So it makes sense to punish people who drink and drive. It makes sense to spend money to educate people about the dangers of drinking and driving. It makes sense to try to stigmatize this behavior.

But smoking? That behavior involves a long-term health problem. There is no societal purpose served in discouraging smoking. Some people might argue that smoking causes health problems, and those health problems are a drain on society's resources. To an extent, that is true.

But so is this — everybody eventually will get sick and die. A huge chunk of the health care services you will receive in your lifetime, you will receive in the last weeks, maybe months, of your life. This is true whether you get that care at 65 or at 85.

Perhaps in a more rational society, that argument could be refuted. If we were to decide that death was a natural part of the cycle of life, and that at some point we ought not spend large sums of money merely to prolong the end of life, then one could argue that we spend more money on people who get sick and die than we do on people who simply grow old and die.

But we don't. We fight death whenever it approaches, and if somebody argues that perhaps we shouldn't, somebody else will yell about "death panels" and "killing grannie" and we quickly revert to the idea of spending large sums of money to prolong the end of life.

In other words, that end-of-life money is going to be spent no matter what.

So I say that if a person — an adult — wants to engage in behavior that will shorten his or her life span, the rest of us ought to be grateful. Maybe we don't want to encourage smoking — that might be crass — but we certainly should not discourage it.

St. Louis County could find better ways to spend that stimulus money — maybe fund a campaign about the joys of eating tasty, high-cholesterol foods. Live better, not longer. That's a message that society ought to be pushing.

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