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  • Live Long or Live Well

    Posted by Shannon Love on December 5th, 2007 (All posts by )

    Over at Hit and Run, Jacob Sullum skewers William F. Buckly for comparing people who refuse to support smoking bans to those who provide Zyklon-B to Nazi Death camps Sullum observes:

    There’s no need to speculate about the reasons for Buckley’s newfound anti-tobacco faith. He himself ascribes it to his wife’s recent death (“technically from an infection, but manifestly, at least in part, from a body weakened by 60 years of nonstop smoking”) and his own emphysema, caused by “the idiocy of cigars inhaled.”

    So, she died at the age of what, 80+, after receiving the benefits and pleasures of 60 freaking years of smoking? I am reminded of the quip made when Julia Child died at 91, “if she hadn’t eaten all that wonderful fat rich food, she might have made it to 92.”

    Every action has tradeoffs. Things that bring enjoyment today have costs tomorrow. Stop to smell the roses and it takes you longer to reach your destination.

    Somewhere along the line we made the cultural decision that a long life represented the ultimate good and that anything that we think we can measure that shortens life is automatically just not worth it. I suspect this comes from a scientific distortion sometimes caused “metric bias,” i.e., the tendency to attribute significance to phenomena based on how easily they can be accurately measured.

    Its easy to measure life span but very difficult to measure quality of life. So, we take the easy way and decide that living a long life is better than living a high-quality life full of events that shorten life span.

    Redd Fox once said that if you follow a rigorous health regime, you don’t live longer, it just feels that way. We should automatically question the assumption in most health-related debates that a maximum life span represents the ultimate good.


    9 Responses to “Live Long or Live Well”

    1. Oclarki Says:

      If one’s life was shortened by some arbitrary amount by engaging in smoking then people could decide whether it was worth it. The problem is the way one suffers at the end. If smoking for sixty years shortened your life by three years, that would be fine. However, for some years preceding your death, you suffer horribly with COPD or cancer.

      It is interesting to note that fully 2/3 of lifelong smokers do not die as a result of the habit.

    2. josepdh hill Says:

      As one who has long used–but no longer do–cigarettes, pipe, chewing tobbaco and snuff, an issue aside from choice is that if you choose to smoke and I am close by, I have NO choice but to breathe your smoke.

      Perhaps William B was also influenced by his son’s comic book, Thank You For Smoking–a satirical look at the industry.

    3. Shannon Love Says:


      The problem is the way one suffers at the end.

      Although, cancer or other smoking related diseases are not pleasant ways to go, I am not sure they are worse than the deaths of people who refrained. We’re all going to die of something. 1 in 5 of non-smokers will die of cancer vs 1 in 4 for smokers. Besides, you can’t really measure quality of death anymore than you can measure quality of life.

      To quote Red Foxx again: All those people who spend so much time taking care of themselves are going to feel pretty stupid lying in the nursing home dying of nothing. Ref Foxx by the way lived hard and often wild and died nearly instantly of massive heart attack at the age of 68 on the set of his sitcom.

    4. Shannon Love Says:

      Joseph Hill,

      …if you choose to smoke and I am close by, I have NO choice but to breathe your smoke.

      Except that unless the government holds a gun to your head, you never have to close to me unless you want to.

      What people really mean is that they don’t wish to make the tradeoffs inherent in avoiding smoke. My local community has a draconian smoking ban and I really enjoy the environment it creates, especially when going to see live music in bars and similar venues. I used avoid such activities precisely because I didn’t like all the smoke. Now, thanks to the coercive power of the state, I can enjoy music in a smoke free environment at the expense of my fellow smoking citizens who get to set through nicotine jitters for my benefit.

      On the other hand, to get that smoke free environment I have surrendered the freedom to choose to smoke in public myself or to own an establishment that does so. I might have never wanted to exercise such a choice but now it does not matter. I can no longer make those choices without drawing down the force of the State.

      So, I breathe free of smoke but I cannot breathe free.

    5. josepdh hill Says:

      Most things in life are trade offs. That’s what I told my ex-wife when I left for another. She got her freedom and I got my new lady. And we were all happy.

    6. Shannon Love Says:

      Josepdh Hill,

      Most things in life are trade offs

      It makes a big difference whether you make decide how to make the tradeoff or whether someone else makes it for you.

      Its important to remember that in politics, the actual decision that gets made is not as important as who makes the decision.

    7. Don Says:

      No one gets out of this life alive.

      Death is a big pie chart. If you shift the causal factor sector in one category though a decrease, you only increase the causal factor sector in another. Which, of course, is the basis for even greater increases in government/non-profit study funding and nannyism laws.

    8. LotharBot Says:

      “you never have to [be] close to me unless you want to.”

      No, but unless you give warning before lighting up, it’s quite possible someone who was unintentionally close to you will end up breathing your smoke. For some people, this is a mere inconvenience. For others, it’s a serious health hazard — my dad’s breathing issues mean he has to flee whenever someone lights up, or he’ll be unconscious and it’s likely we’ll end up calling an ambulance.

      Some non-smokers don’t wish to make the tradeoffs inherent in avoiding smoke. Some smokers don’t wish to make the tradeoffs inherent in respecting non-smokers. Both sides need to be reasonable, and IMO a big piece of the unreasonableness we’re starting to see from non-smokers is in response to the occasional jerk who chooses to light up right next to the guy with the oxygen tank. If you choose to smoke, you should be allowed to* — certainly in your own home, out in the open in areas where you’re easy to avoid, and in establishments that choose to allow it. But you should show enough respect to NOT smoke in heavily trafficked areas where there aren’t reasonable alternative paths (like next to building entrances or on busy sidewalks.) Show enough respect to try to keep your smoke to areas where others won’t end up accidentally breathing it. If that sort of thing doesn’t happen, people will continue to turn to the nanny-state for help.

      * in response to the OP: IMO length of life is a decent proxy measurement for overall quality of life in a statistical sense. For the most part, most demographic groups engage in risky and enjoyable behavior; those with longer lives tend to be those whose circumstances best mitigate the risks. Experience also teaches us that certain “end-of-life” scenarios aren’t really pleasant, and many of those are associated with life-shortening behaviors or conditions (cancer/smoking, AIDS, etc.) Of course, experience also teaches us that other unpleasant “end-of-life” scenarios come with medically extending one’s lifespan too much. We tend to disapprove of both sets of behaviors, with lifespan itself occasionally serving as a proxy because it’s easier to say “you’ll die young” than “you’ll have painful medical complications over the course of the last 4 decades of your life”.

    9. Shannon Love Says:


      …IMO a big piece of the unreasonableness we’re starting to see from non-smokers is in response to the occasional jerk who chooses to light up right next to the guy with the oxygen tank.

      I certainly agree with that. I am a non-smoker and had a health problem for a time that left me highly sensitive to any airborne irritant. About 1 in every 10 smokers seemed determined to try to kill me. It’s not an easy tradeoff to balance. Its easy to say that my right to swing my arm though the air ends at your nose but most real world situations don’t map onto that clean scenario.

      Frankly, I would be far more comfortable if people would phrase the anti-smoking extremism in terms of raw self-interest. Its the people who claim to do it for the good of others that scare me.

      IMO length of life is a decent proxy measurement for overall quality of life in a statistical sense.

      Not really. Genetics seems to exert a stronger influence on life span than any other factor. Still, your basic point remains valid.

      The problem under discussion arises from conflicts between people’s different levels of tradeoffs. I had a friend, very intelligent and informed who nevertheless chose to smoke because without nicotine he could not concentrate to program. “What is the point of living a long life if I can pursue my passion?” he once asked. On the other hand, my grandmother is 96 years old and has lived to see her great-great grandchildren. She lived a life of work and restraint, never smoked, drank or partied. For her, the tradeoff was well worth.

      When we make these decisions in a political manner we inevitably force some to make a tradeoff other than the one they would have chosen for themselves. Losing sight of the fact that significant tradeoffs do exist and that people differ significantly in their preferences for these tradeoffs leads us to create oppression.