Now, before we go any further, I’d like to make one thing really clear. Smoking is bad for you. It’s really bad for you. Anything that results in fewer people smoking is likely to be a thoroughly good thing for public health.
But sadly, I have to say there are times when I think the anti-tobacco movement is losing the plot. One such time came this week when I saw the headline “Industry makes $7,000 for each tobacco death“. That has to be one of the daftest statistics I’ve seen for a long time, and I speak as someone who takes a keen interest in daft statistics.
I’m not saying the number is wrong. I haven’t checked it in detail, so it could be, but that’s not the point, and in any case, the numbers look more or less plausible.
The calculation goes like this. Total tobacco industry profits in 2013 (the most recent year for which figures are available) were $44 billion. In the same year, 6.3 million people died from smoking related diseases. Divide the first number by the second, and you end up with $7000 profit per death.
I think we’re supposed to be shocked by that. Perhaps the message is that the tobacco industry is profiting from deaths. In fact given we are told that this figure has increased from $6000 a couple of years ago as if that were a bad thing, I guess that is what we’re supposed to think.
If you haven’t yet figured out how absurd that is, let’s compare it with the teddy bear industry.
Now, some of the figures that follow come from sources that might not score 10/10 for reliability, and these calculations might look like they’ve been made up on the back of a fag packet. But please bear with me, because all that we really require for today’s purposes is that these numbers be at least approximately correct to within a couple of orders of magnitude, and I think they probably are.
Let’s start with the number of teddy bear related deaths each year. I haven’t been able to find reliable global figures for that, but according to this website, there are 22 fatal incidents involving teddy bears and other toys in the US each year. Let’s assume that teddy bears account for half of those. That gives us 11 teddy bear related deaths per year in the US.
Since we’re looking at the US, how much profit does the US teddy bear industry make each year? I’ve struggled to find good figures for that, but I think we can get a rough idea by looking at the profits of the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, which is apparently one of the largest players in the US teddy bear market. I don’t know what their market share is. Let’s just take a wild guess that it’s about 1/3 of the total teddy bear market.
The company is now owned by private equity and so isn’t required to report its profits, but I found some figures from the last few years (2001 to 2005) before it was bought by private equity, and its average annual profit for that period was about $1.7 million. So if that represents 1/3 of the total teddy bear market, and if its competitors are similarly profitable (wild assumptions I know, but we’re only going for wild approximations here), then the total annual profits of the US teddy bear market are about £5 million.
So, if we now do the same calculation as for the tobacco industry, we see that the teddy bear industry makes a profit of about $450,000 per death ($5 million divided by 11 deaths).
So do we conclude that the teddy bear industry is far more evil than the tobacco industry?
No. What we conclude is that using “profits per death” as a measure of the social harm of an industry is an incredibly daft use of statistics. You are dividing by the number of deaths, so the more people you kill, the smaller will be your profits per death.
There are many statistics you could choose to show the harms of the tobacco industry. That it kills about half its users is a good place to start. That chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a disease that is massively associated with smoking, is the world’s third leading cause of death, also makes a pretty powerful point. Or one of my personal favourite statistics about smoking, that a 35-year-old smoker is twice as likely to die before age 70 as a non-smoker of the same age.
But let’s not try to show how bad smoking is by using a measure which increases the fewer people your product kills, OK?