The Electric Commentary

Monday, October 11, 2004

Beer Pong, Health Care, and Frivolous Lawsuits

On Saturday night I attended a friend's birthday party where I played Beer Pong. Beer Pong is a drinking game in which 12 cups are filled approximately 1/3 full of beer. 6 cups are set up in equilateral triangles on opposite sides of a long table. Teams of two people take turns trying to throw a Ping-Pong ball into one of the opponent’s cups. If successful, the opponent must chug the cup, and the cup is removed from the field of play. Each side throws two balls per turn (one per team member) and if both are successful on the same turn, they get another turn right away. The first team to successfully throw Ping-Pong balls into all six cups wins, and plays against the next team.

While flip-cup tends to dominate the drinking-game scene, Beer Pong is a nice change of pace. First of all, it is reminiscent of the "Grand Prize Game" on the Bozo Show, but with beer. Second, it provides a better forum for trash talking than flip-cup, as only one team is participating at a time, and distractions are allowed and encouraged. I find doing "the robot" to be the most effective distraction technique. Third, we play on a friend’s closet door, which he removes for the occasion, balanced on two chairs on his back porch, and with two cups of water handy to "sterilize" the ping pong balls. This practice is gross, but it adds a little more incentive to play well, or risk drinking beer contaminated by a bacteria covered Ping-Pong ball.

So what does Beer Pong have to do with frivolous lawsuits? A few years ago the government sued the major tobacco companies on behalf of the populace. Why the government felt it necessary to sue on behalf of the people when the people were perfectly capable of suing on their own is still a bit of a mystery (OK, so it was a giveaway to lawyers, and a revenue generator, and not a mystery at all). One of the more troubling aspects of this case was that the government used "increased health care costs" as part of its measurement for damages. The problem is that smokers don’t increase health care costs, they reduce them.

This should be fairly obvious to anyone who spends five minutes thinking about it. Life, after all, is expensive. Death is cheap. Sure smokers suffer cancer and emphysema at enormously high rates, but the diseases suffered by smokers tend to be serious and relatively quick. They kill, and fast. Non-smokers, on the other hand, generally live longer, but even healthy people are ultimately killed by something, be it old age or heart trouble or tainted prunes. It is the time in between a smoker’s death and a non-smoker’s death that creates the greater expense. Non-smokers get cancer too, and non-fatal cancer is expensive. They take arthritis medication, liver pills, have wheel chairs, and walkers with sliced tennis balls on the back legs so that the floor doesn’t get all scraped up. And that Metamucil isn’t free. In short, getting old is hell, and to add insult to injury, it’s also expensive.

Smokers die young, and as a result, they miss out on a lot of these expensive maladies.

Philip Morris (full disclosure, I used to work for a PM subsidiary) conducted a study in the Czech Republic that basically proved this point. This study may be horribly biased, but almost no one attacked the substance of the study, instead calling it "insensitive." They are a tobacco company after all. For the sake of fairness, here is a dissenting opinion, and just so I have a slightly more credible source, here is a report from the Cato Institute.

My point is not to minimize the importance of people dying. When people die it is certainly a bad thing. In fact, I think that if you calculated the losses to the labor market and to productivity in general that smoking would have large negative costs to society. However, if we are going to make that the standard for recovering in litigation, then almost any activity that is not "work" will be open to litigation. The point here is that smoking does not drive up medical expenses.

But, if you’re still not convinced, consider Beer Pong. My team, largely on the strength of my wife’s deadly accurate shooting, was dominant, winning at least four games in a row (maybe five but it gets hard to keep count after a while). On a per-game basis every other team consumed at least 2/3 of a cup more beer than we did as we were always spared from drinking at least one of our cups and usually two or three. Yet we (meaning me, as we employed a strategy wherein I drank most of our beer so that she could drive us home later) were much more intoxicated than all other participants. They consumed more in the short term, but eventually we overtook them. The reason: we survived. All of the other participants "died" and therefore stopped consuming beer, but we "survived" and continued to drain the resources of the keg. This conclusion seems obvious in the context of Beer Pong, and it should be obvious in the context of smoking deaths as well.

Smoking is an overly politicized issue, and with any such issue good numbers are hard to come by. I don’t mean to hold up the PM study or the Cato Institute as paragons of objectivity; they are not. But they are at least as accurate as those on the other side of the issue for whom smoking is such a sin that they feel it should be banned in movies lest a cigarette obscures their view of Sharon Stone.

What should be clear to everyone is that the longer you live, the more expensive life gets. After all, neither healthcare, nor beer, is free.


  • beer pong rules. i'm a world-class player... the worst distraction i've ever experience is when my very very drunk friend pulled his balls out of his shorts and rested them on the table... i've never recovered from this incident as a player or as a person

    By Blogger ahren, at 6:34 PM  

  • I think I'll stick to doing "the robot."
    Wow Ahren, I'm not sure I've recovered from reading your comment yet.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 8:26 AM  

  • I think your parallel is flawed.
    Cancer is very expensive to treat and rings up huge bills in a very short time. A heart attack, stroke, or even being dependent on medications aren't anywhere near as expensive. Also, the older a person is, the longer they have paid health insurance and taxes (until retirement).

    By Anonymous Scott H, at 2:58 PM  

  • But the longer they live past retirement the more expensive they become. Their drugs are very expensive. Treating non-fatal ailments, like arthritis, digestive problems, etc. is expensive.

    Plus people have done studies on this. A very high percentage of medical care (in monetary terms) takes place in the last year of life. Lung and throat cancer tends to work quickly, and kills at about the age of retirement. This is the point where a person has contributed the most but taken out the least.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 3:04 PM  

  • I admit that I have not seen the studies and could be wrong. I just see flaws in the logic. Smoking also causes chronic conditions (emphysema, bronchitis at high rates).
    Also smoking-related cancer (especially mouth) does not have a 100% death rate, thus running up large costs to people who don't die.
    Chemotheraphy costs well over $10,000 a session (about once a month) and can cost 5 times that much. Vioxx costs about $60/month. So about 15 years of arthritis for one bargain-priced chemo shot.
    I think about 40-50% of lung cancer patients survive more than a year.

    By Anonymous Scott H, at 5:44 PM  

  • say nothing of the difference between the standard of living in the Czech Republic and the cost of good medical intervention in the United States. In the thoracic surgery department I worked, lung cancer patients generally had a very positive prognosis--if they quit smoking. Not all lung cancer patients were healthy (usually under 70 yo) enough to have surgery.

    All cancers are quickly lethal if you catch them very late in their development. All cancers are expensive to treat in respect to the medical cost of a healthy individual. Lung cancer is a cancer that can be avoided and thus the healthcare cost of lung cancer is an avoidable expense. Time is money. Lung cancer today is more expensive than a gradual decline fifty years later.

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