Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Life’s certainty is terrifying to student smoker

I’ve recently quit smoking for the seventh time in three years, but I’m sure I’ll start again soon. I quit, much to the satisfaction of my friends, because I find myself gasping for breath after running. And because of a television ad that caught my eye recently.

In the ad, three teenagers bungee jump out of an airplane while chugging their favorite soda. Two of the boys beam glowingly with satisfaction. Then the third boy’s head explodes. Tobacco, the ad concludes, is the only product that kills one in three people who use it.

It’s the best of the tobacco-settlement-funded spots to occupy the airwaves because it recognizes an essential fact about turning a number into a slogan: The smaller, more graspable the number, the more powerful the slogan. You know three smokers. You don’t know 157,400 people, the number the American Cancer Society predicts will die of lung cancer this year.

But what does “one in three” mean?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Of young American adults who smoke, we project that 55 percent will become lifetime smokers, and there is a 50 percent chance that they will suffer a smoking-attributable death. The other 45 percent, who will quit sometime in their adult life, have a 10 percent chance of suffering a smoking-attributable death.”

So, 50 percent of 55 percent plus 10 percent of 45 percent comes out to 32 percent, or more or less one in three. Of course these numbers are really just guesses, and these people might have died anyway, without smoking. But the majesty of statistics is that they can turn a sufficiently large aggregate of guesses into a number we can hope to trust.

You still might ask whether the question with the answer “one in three” is the right question to ask.

The death of a 35-year-old smoker from lung cancer is not the same as the congestive heart failure of a 72-year-old smoker. But the number in the TV ad counts both the same. And shouldn’t the 72-year-old’s accumulated decades of emphysemic wheezing and hacking count for something? Taking some of these issues into account, the CDC estimates that today’s youth will pay a smoking penalty of 64 million years of lifespan. That’s a big, impressive number, precisely why it’s not as good as “one in three.”

None of which should obscure the undeniable fact that smoking has a decent chance of killing you. But how good a chance? Maybe “a decent chance” is the most accurate answer. It’s not clear that the question can be sensibly answered with a single number, or that such an answer would be good for much besides advertising and litigating.

Rarely do simple questions have simple answers — with one exception. That’s the question that smokers and most advertisers would rather leave unmentioned and the question that the anti-smoking campaigns, to their credit, are attempting to keep in focus. The question is, “If you are alive today, what’s the chance that you will die?” And the answer is the smallest, most powerful and most precise of all numbers: one in one.

It’s this type of thing that I think about late at night, when I should be doing homework. It’s this type of things that make me want to smoke right now.

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Life’s certainty is terrifying to student smoker