According to the CDC, tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of death in the United States. The habit kills almost half a million Americans a year, squanders over $300 billion, and is generally responsible for a grotesque level of human suffering.
In response to this data, author and scientist K.C. Cole imagines a fascinating hypothetical; in her bestseller, The Universe and the Teacup, she spends some time considering a world where cigarettes themselves are harmless, but one cigarette in every 18,750 packs has been decidedly laced with dynamite. Every day in this explosive lottery, hundreds of unlucky Americans would meet an end that traumatized passersby and irritated clean-up crews. It can be reasonably assumed that in Cole’s world, smoking would be the pastime only of fools.
While Cole’s alternate universe seems like an uneasy compromise between a Stephen King novel and Black Mirror, in both our real world and her fictional one, cigarettes kill with an identical frequency, thereby posing the exact same danger. And when a danger or any other threat to well-being is immediate, exotic, or otherwise exciting, one tends to behave more cautiously than he otherwise would (or, as we may find, should) when given the same danger in a more boring wrapping paper.
Recently, Americans’ inability to recognize this psychological phenomenon has threatened the well-being of millions of people (in a far more fundamental and troubling manner than cigarettes). In fact, the only two significant policy accomplishments of the President thus far — namely, the partial implementation of his travel ban and the progression of the Republican health care plan through Congress — seem to celebrate our collective failure to adequately assess risk.
The Supreme Court’s agreement to hear the case has ultimately allowed the President’s travel ban to take effect, which means it is now the responsibility of every voter to consider its utility. While it is true that experts have criticized the specifics of the ban as disorganized and random, the most basic (and most essential) consideration is whether the ban makes America more or less safe. We would expect a president who understands the statistical risk of refugee terrorism to be about six times more vocal about shark attacks; his tone regarding fatal asteroid impacts should be 29 times more urgent. While this would make for a much more interesting Twitter feed, such an idea is impossible to take seriously. Americans must demand that safety and security surround the refugee admission process, but when considering the near statistical impossibility of terrorist refugees, the rigor of the vetting procedures already in place, and the fact that barring refugees plays into extremist rhetoric and leads to further radicalization (i.e., more terrorists), we must conclude that the President’s policy overestimates risk in a dangerous way.
Overestimation of risk engenders wastefulness and unintended consequences, but an underestimation of risk is deadly: the President’s other policy pursuit, repealing and replacing Obamacare, is a dynamite cigarette waiting to be ignited. Should either Republican health care bill become law, about 20 million Americans will lose health insurance.
Experts like Dr. David Himmelstein, a Harvard Medical School professor who specializes in the link between health care and mortality, estimates that passing such a plan will lead to tens of thousands of deaths. While there has been bipartisan outrage over the legislation, its volume and tone have been insufficient. Consider what the response would have been if Democrats authored a bill that allowed refugees to enter the country in such a way that millions were threatened and thousands would die. The problem is that these deaths would not occur because of explosive cigarettes or scary refugees.
It is a moral necessity for Americans of every political stripe to muster within ourselves (at least) as much outrage for deadly legislation as many are able to conjure for the President’s mean tweets. Acting like a child kills no one. Governing like one does.