One thing that is known about electronic cigarettes: they’ve become a serious business in the United States.
Although e-cigarettes represent only a tiny percentage of the U.S. tobacco market, the industry is growing.
The number of people currently “vaping” has increased substantially over the last few years, with sales of nearly $2 billion in 2013.
Some analysts predict that this could grow to $10 billion by 2017 and eventually overtake sales of conventional cigarettes. It’s worth noting that the industry is maturing without much in the way of oversight or regulation.
We also know how e-cigarettes work—mechanically speaking. Using a battery-powered heating element, they convert liquid nicotine (sometimes flavored with food additives) into a vapor that users then inhale or “vape.”
This unique system delivers nicotine without the cancer-causing and other harmful elements associated with burning tobacco.
Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of the certainty ends. Currently, evidence for the safety, harmfulness, utility, and addictiveness of e-cigarettes is lacking.
The questions that research needs to answer, however, are clear as day—particularly since business is booming.
Are E-Cigarettes Bad for You?
Some of the food additives that flavor e-cigarette vapor may be dangerous when inhaled; the long-term health effects of inhaling the vapor are unknown. And of course, e-cigarettes still deliver nicotine, the main addictive ingredient in cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Nicotine from e-cigarettes could have detrimental effects on cardiovascular health and may impair breathing among those with already compromised lung functioning.
Facing thousands in extra insurance costs, smokers appear to be the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) biggest losers. Employers are allowed charge smokers up to 50% more for their medical coverage than nonsmokers , starting in 2014.
And these headlines are absolutely accurate — meaning that, with the possible exception of the e-cigarette, ACA is the best thing that has happened to employed smokers ever.
Here is how we arrive at this conclusion. The data is mixed on whether smokers incur much higher healthcare costs or just slightly higher healthcare costs during their working ages than non-smokers do. None of the data shows that their costs are lower, but let’s say there is no impact on health spending.
Nonetheless, the following is incontrovertible: smokers take smoking breaks.
Remarkably, there are no laws specifically governing smoking breaks, and like most other quantifiable human resources issues, no one has quantified them. But we all observe these breaks, and about a fifth of us participate in them. They reduce productivity. By definition, if you are outside smoking, you are not inside working.
Sure, some smokers make up the time by working harder when they aren’t smoking…but (1) many non-smokers work hard too and (2) some workplaces, such as inbound call centers, don’t offer the luxury of catching up later because they operate in real time. Lacking quantification, fall back on your imagination…and imagine what you would do if you ran a company in which non-smokers spent as much time mulling around outside as smokers do. That should give you an understanding of the impact of smoking breaks on productivity.
The Affordable Care Act contains a number of provisions intended to incent “personal responsibility,” or the notion that health care isn’t just a right — it’s an obligation. None of these measures is more prominent than the law’s individual mandate, designed to ensure that every American obtains health coverage or pays a fine for choosing to go uninsured.
But one provision that’s gotten much less attention — until recently — relates to smoking; specifically, the ACA allows payers to treat tobacco users very differently by opening the door to much higher premiums for this population.
That measure has some health policy analysts cheering, suggesting that higher premiums are necessary to raise revenue for the law and (hopefully) deter smokers’ bad habits. But other observers have warned that the ACA takes a heavy-handed stick to smokers who may be unhappily addicted to tobacco, rather than enticing them with a carrot to quit.
Under proposed rules, HHS would allow insurers to charge a smoker seeking health coverage in the individual market as much as 50% more in premiums than a non-smoker.
That difference in premiums may rapidly add up for smokers, given the expectation that Obamacare’s new medical-loss ratios already will lead to major cost hikes in the individual market. “For many people, in the years after the law, premiums aren’t just going to [go] up a little,” Peter Suderman predicts at Reason. “They’re going to rise a lot.”
Meanwhile, Ann Marie Marciarille, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, adds that insurers have “considerable flexibility” in how to set up a potential surcharge for tobacco use. For example, insurers could apply a high surcharge for tobacco use in older smokers — perhaps several hundred dollars per month — further hitting a population that tends to be poorer.
Is this cost-shifting fair? The average American tends to think so.
Henry David Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
We have hacked at healthcare costs for what seems like thousands of times, with very limited success. It is time to strike at the root. Rather than focus on reducing costs after preventable diseases have taken hold, it is time to focus attention on eliminating the disease.
Let us look at two specific examples.
1. The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has estimated that the cost of smoking(estimated cost of smoking-related medical expenses and loss of productivity) exceeds $167 billion annually. The CDC has also estimated that 326 billion cigarettes (combustible tobacco, to be more precise) went up in smoke in 2011. In other words, every cigarette consumed costs the nation about 50 cents; every pack, $10.
Put another way, while the smoker paid approximately $5 a pack up front, there was also an additional $10 secret surcharge — the cost of which is born by all of us (such as taxpayers, anyone who buys health insurance, even private companies who suffer from lower productivity as a result). It is as if we are telling the smoker, “I know you can’t afford to pay $15 for a pack. So we will give you $10 so you can afford to smoke.” We are not this generous even with people who don’t have one square meal a day. We spent $78 billion on food stamps, with constant pressure to bring that down further even if some people will be left without food as a result.