Research: Public health policies work – and probably help the economy too

Alcohol_y_TabacoNewly published research about the effects of anti-smoking policies have found such policies effectively incentivize the desired social behaviors, and it also suggests that they create more benefits than costs for society. While this study focused only on anti-smoking policies, the results are relevant to ongoing debates in Utah about loosening state alcohol control laws and, now, legalizing marijuana.

The study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, applied a benefit-cost analysis methodology to U.S. anti-smoking policies from 1964-2010. They found that: (1) these policies “reduce[d] total cigarette consumption by 28 percent,” and (2) the “consumer benefits from anti-smoking policies through 2010 is estimated to be $573 billion,” in 2010 dollars. The researchers further note that they were unable to come up with a similar estimate of the hard costs of these policies, but they “discuss evidence that suggests the consumer benefits substantially outweigh the costs.”

While the study’s finding about the net impact on the economy is unclear without a better cost estimate, the impact of anti-smoking policies on smoking behavior in this research seems quite significant and definitive. The lesson for policy-makers should be clear: public policy can significantly impact and incentivize the behavior of individuals on potentially addictive and socially harmful behaviors like smoking (or, I would add, drinking or illicit drug use) to the benefit of both society and, in some cases, the individuals themselves.

Does this reality of public policy justify government attempts to regulate any and every behavior “for the good of society”? Of course not, though fully fleshing out why not is a subject for another post. But does this reality support regulating – sometimes heavily – behaviors that harm society and freedom, such as smoking, drinking and illicit drug use? Indeed it does, and this new study is one piece of evidence among many illustrating why.