Wednesday, March 16, 2011

3-16-11: Smoking Rates and Social Security

I heard on NPR this morning a report about a study stating that the rate of smoking in America has significantly decreased since the 1960's. The rate of lung cancer death has also gone down. The number of smokers has dropped, but the amount of smoking being done by the average smoker has also been going down. All of these things are good. I, for one, lost a dear relative to lung cancer, and it's great to see more people aren't being taken away from their families too early due to smoking.

I also heard a report yesterday, again on NPR, about social security, and how politicians in Washington, specifically Democrats, keep away from discussing it due to it being a "political third rail." In 2010, for this first time in its 75+ year history, Social Security paid out more than it took in. At its current rate, Social Security will burn through its cash by 2037, about 15 years before I plan on retiring. Many politicians don't see it as a real problem.

For some strange reason, probably because I've been following great economics blogs like Marginal Revolution and Freakonomics for a while now, but I saw these two stories as being related. Wouldn't it be a bad thing for Social Security if people aren't smoking as much nowadays? People would start living longer, dying less often, and therefore would be receiving benefits later in life. People currently receiving Social Security grew up in the smoking generation, and are probably more susceptible to various forms of cancer caused by tobacco products. As the years go on, those receiving benefits will have likely lived a healthier lifestyle than the generation prior. If you can link smoking and tobacco use to cancer, and plan out 20, 30, and 40 years from now, fewer and fewer people will have been exposed to the same diseases. If we do run out of funding, people my age in their mid twenties will have paid the benefits for a generation of less healthy Americans. Hardly a reward for healthy living.

In general, life expectancy increases with each coming generation. Granted, the obesity rate is higher among youths than it was 30 or 40 years ago, so there is a bit of an offset when it comes to overall health. But nevertheless, the average lifespan of an American receiving Social Security benefits will not be shrinking any time soon.

Why not fix Social Security now? Passing it off as unimportant is a true political cop-out. At the very least, couldn't it be discussed?

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