Seth Godin has a blog post this morning in which he says
Smoking a pack a day for twenty years is a great way to be sure you’ll die early.
The point of his post was not the dangers of smoking. His point was that “What we do in the long run, over time, drip by drip” matters more than what we do sporadically and I certainly agree. But I disagree with Seth’s comment on smoking.
Smoking certainly cuts your life short on average. But smoking is like playing Russian roulette: Most of the time, you’re OK. Most smokers do not get lung cancer. Smoking does not ensure that you’ll die early. And that may be why smokers ignore warnings. They can point to plenty of fellow smokers who were not killed by smoking. For example, if I wanted to smoke I could point out that my parents smoked and did not die of smoking-related causes. (Another smoker in my family, however, did die of lung cancer.)
People are most strongly motivated by consequences that are immediate and certain. Given a choice between the certain pleasure of enjoying a cigarette now versus a risk of lung cancer years from now, smokers choose the former.
It’s not very effective to tell someone, especially someone young, that if they smoke they will get lung cancer. For one thing, it’s not true: they probably will not get lung cancer. But they do increase their chances of cancer, and even more so their chances of emphysema, heart disease, etc. Still, those are probabilities of future events. Teenagers may be more motivated by the thought of their fingernails turning yellow or their clothes stinking.
Update: I want to be clear that I’m not defending smoking. I couldn’t wait to move out of the smoke-filled house I grew up in. Nor am I trying to down-play the health risks of smoking. The harmful effects are extraordinary well established. As Fletcher Knebel said back in 1961, smoking is the leading cause of statistics. Half a century later we’re still spending money on studies to confirm what we already know.