Tune Out, Light Up

In terms of destroying years of life, television is far worse than tobacco

By Dave Kopel, of the Independence Institute

In Italiano

5/29/00 12:35 p.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on Television.

American teenagers — and adults too — would enjoy the fuller complement of life if they turned off the television, and lit up a cigarette. You see, in terms of destroying years of life, television is far worse than tobacco.

According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average smoking-related death cuts about 12 years off a person's life. Between a quarter and a half of all smokers eventually die of a smoking-related disease. (Citations are in Jacob Sullum's excellent book about the anti-smoking movement: For Your Own Good, pages 67-68.) So, on the average, smokers lose 3-6 years of their life, due to their habit. (These figures are based on mortality statistics from 1990, and reflect smokers who began smoking in the early 1960s and in previous decades, when tar levels in cigarettes were much higher. The smoking risks from today's cigarettes would be considerably lower.) Of course these lost years of life tend to come during old age; a person who would have lived until age 80 dies at 75, due to smoking.

According to a 1998 survey by the A.C. Nielsen Company, the average American watches television for three hours and 46 minutes every day. By the age of 75, this average American will have spent over ten years watching television.

So if you give up cigarettes, you'll have three to six extra years to do things. If you give up television, you'll have ten extra years. Moreover, the extra time you gain by not smoking adds years only to the end of your life, by which time you may have other health problems, and not be fully able to enjoy all the different activities you would like. But if you give up television, you gain ten extra years spread through your life, and at a time when you're younger and more vigorous — or at least middle-aged and not arthritic.

It's true, of course, that years lost as a result of television are not exactly comparable to years lost due to tobacco: the tobacco years lost amount to total unconsciousness (death), while the years lost to television amount to only partial unconsciousness ("zoning out" hour after hour of television, in a semi-daze).

On the other hand, outside of your health, tobacco has no ill effects. In contrast, television even impairs the enjoyment of the time when television addicts are not watching television. Heavy television watchers are considerably more fearful of crime; television watchers are heavier, as a dozen studies show that television promotes obesity (tobacco promotes weight control); television sharply reduces meaningful conversation between parents and children.

And there is notable evidence that television may harm even those who don't watch television, by raising the violent crime rate.

As for tobacco, the harms to non-smokers are limited to offensive odors. As Jacob Sullum details, the alleged health dangers of second-hand smoke are nothing but junk science. Tobacco use does not harm society, except to the extent that it provides extortion revenue for tort lawyers and their government allies.

In short, if your eighteen-year-old starts smoking a pack of cigarettes every day, and announces that she plans to continue the habit for the rest of her life, you can be thankful that she's not following the bad example of your neighbor's kid, who watches four hours of television every day. Your daughter will have a longer, fuller, more active life than will your neighbor's kid.

Of course, it would be better still if your daughter cut down to five cigarettes per day; then, there would be hardly any health risks, Sullum explains. And likewise, if your neighbor's kid cut back to just an hour of television a day, he could still enjoy his favorite shows, while having lots more time to enjoy a real life.

Perhaps one day, American adults will develop enough common sense to teach their children that moderation is the best policy for almost everything, including tobacco and television.

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