- Act One -
It can be surprising sometimes which kind of topics the Economic discipline has incorporated into its realm. One of these fields is the “Economics of Smoking” which exists now also as the “New Economics of Smoking”. On one hand the potential costs of smokers for the health system of a country gives enough reason for economists to care about smokers. On the other hand it is surprising to see that it requires a whole new “Economics of…” for a field that seems rather trivial at least from the point of view of the individual smoker.
An influential researcher on this topic is Jonathan Gruber, who writes on the NBER website
“...The fundamental problem with the rational addiction model is that it does not account for the "self-control" problems faced by smokers. There is ample evidence that adults are unable to quit smoking even if they have a desire to do so….”
Well having smoked for easily 10 years this does not come as too much of a surprise to me nor will it to any other person: smoker or non-smoker. Gruber goes on to say:
“…These facts motivated Koszegi and me to develop an alternative formulation of the smoking decision which changes the traditional formulation in just one critical way: by allowing smokers to be time inconsistent. This approach, now widely used within the new field of "behavioral economics," is one where there is conflict between what the smoker would like for himself today and what he would like for himself tomorrow. Today's "self" is impatient. Faced with the tradeoff between the short- term pleasures of smoking and the long- term health damages of doing so, he will greatly discount the latter and decide to smoke. But tomorrow's "self" is much more patient. That more patient self would prefer to quit smoking. The problem, however, is that tomorrow never comes. The next day, the future self who was patient is now the current self who is impatient. So the smoking continues, to the long-term regret of the smoker. This is in contrast with the time consistent formulation that is assumed by the traditional economics model. In that formulation, today's self and all future selves are in agreement about the advisability of smoking, leading to no regret or inability to carry out plans to quit.
Now this is amazing! If you ever thought about smart ways of “marketing” your research, this part of the outline of Gruber’s research agenda is a perfect example of how to do this. Why? Because it sounds incredibly great and smart , but at least all smokers (economist or not) could have told you the same, however in very different words, since probably most smokers keep telling themselves: “One day I will stop!” Unfortunately, that day never comes since we keep telling us that sentence every other day. And: We are fully aware of this!
Gruber continues by writing:
“…The key implication of time inconsistent preferences is that one's future self would like to somehow constrain one's current self to behave more patiently [..]. Thus, time inconsistent consumers will have demand for commitment devices that can be used to induce more appropriate behavior in the present. Indeed, the search for such commitment devices is the hallmark of most recommended strategies for quitting smoking: people regularly set up socially managed incentives to refrain from smoking by betting with others, telling others about the decision, and otherwise making it embarrassing to smoke…”
Having stopped to smoke just recently, I was aware of the commitment problem. Also all the other smokers and non-smokers at our lunch table in the Economics department saw immediately the reason for my public “outing” of having become a non-smoker. So either the people sharing lunch with me in the Graduate Institute are really smart or the fact that we are all economists implies that we have understood the problems of incentives and commitments or less charming to our “self” it is a rather obvious thing to do. Irrespective of this, the bad news for me and my future as non-smoker according to Gruber is that:
“..Unfortunately, […] there is no way to truly commit oneself to not smoke..”
However, my efforts are not doomed yet since:
“…the government, on the other hand, can provide an excellent commitment device: cigarette taxation [..]. By raising the price of cigarettes, the government and courts can make smoking more costly for today's self, helping achieve what the smoker's own long-term self would desire by lowering smoking today. ..”
Unfortunately for me, this is the point where I disagree. Yes, it is true that higher prices discourage smoking (in particular for young smokers who just start and this is why I am for cigarette prices as high as possible). BUT, there is a limit to it. I remember very well the times that Berlin’s streets where full of cigarette vendors who sold well below the prices in the stores. So, price increases have a natural limit and this will be well below the price that the addicted smoker is willing to pay (during the time that I smoked cigarette prices nearly doubled).
So if you read up to this point you probably know what my stance is on the successful approach to fight smoking, at least from the point of view of the individual smoker…to be continued with some statistics on the issue…A hopefully lasting non-smoker