Tuesday 21 August 2018

Leo's health insurance remarks are just more smoke

Eight out of 10 smokers, according to the HSE, want to quit
Eight out of 10 smokers, according to the HSE, want to quit

Andrew Kealy

'Anyone who can afford to smoke 20 cigarettes a day can afford a Gibson Les Paul 57 goldtop custom electric guitar," is what Health Minister Leo Varadkar didn't say yesterday. But he might as well have. Instead the minister, speaking to Pat Kenny on Newstalk, made an equally spurious comparison: "Anyone who can afford to smoke 20 cigarettes a day can afford to take out health insurance."

Aside from being glib, this is an undeniable statement of arithmetic fact: a low-cost health insurance policy can be had for around €400; a 20-a-day cigarette habit costs more than €3,600 per year. Implicit in the minister's comparison, however, is the argument that any smoker without insurance ought to divert a portion of their tobacco spend towards buying a health policy. This argument is facile. There are lots of ways to spend €3,600 if you have it lying around - including the aforementioned electric guitar. But for a smoker with a fully-formed 20-cigarettes-a-day habit, it is nonsense to suggest that they can simply divert elsewhere the money they spend on tobacco. The usual rules of 'opportunity cost', whereby a consumer, by buying something, misses out on the opportunity to buy something else, don't apply.

While starting smoking is a poor decision, the same cannot be said for not quitting. Because whether to quit or not is a decision informed by chronic addiction. According to the UK's National Health Service "nicotine can be more addictive than heroin".

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