According to the American Lung Association, tobacco kills nearly half a million Americans annually and costs the nation $333 billion per year in health-care expenses and lost productivity to boot. But it’s hard for the average person—specifically, the average smoker—to wrap one’s brain around such an enormous figure.
Coming to the rescue, timed to coincide with the CDC’s Tobacco Awareness Week, is a new state-by-state analysis from WalletHub detailing the lifelong financial costs of smoking for an individual. Because the average price of a pack of cigarettes varies widely around the country—$5.25 in Virginia, $8 in Michigan, $12.85 in New York—the lifetime outlay varies greatly from state to state as well. In all cases, though, the data gathered by WalletHub show that smoking is incredibly costly in addition to being potentially deadly.
The total cost per smoker is estimated at $1,097,690 in South Carolina—and it’s the least expensive state in the nation. A Kansas City Star headline noted that the “cost of smoking is cheap in Missouri … relatively,” as the state ranks as the eighth least expensive on WalletHub’s list, with the total cost for a lifetime of smoking running “only” $1,177,230. At the high end of the spectrum, there’s Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut, where the habit costs more than $1.9 million per person in a lifetime. Priciest of all is Alaska, which crosses the $2 million mark.
For a little perspective, federal data estimates that the cost of raising a child to age 18 is about $250,000—a big chunk of change, but only a small fraction of expenses reportedly incurred by smokers.
Right about now, the average smoker (or just the average reader with a healthy degree of skepticism) is probably thinking: hogwash. The process of coming up with such wild figures must involve a fair amount of smoke and mirrors, so to speak, right?
Let’s have a look at what WalletHub did, exactly. By far, the largest expense incorporated into the per-person total is the “tobacco cost per smoker,” measured at $786,346 in South Carolina, up to roughly $1.5 million in Alaska. WalletHub came up with that figure by multiplying the average price of a pack of cigarettes in each state by the number of days in 51 years. Fair enough. There are cheaper ways to go about buying cigarettes, like buying smokes by the case, but many people purchase by the pack.
What’s trickier is the way that WalletHub pumped up its tobacco cost estimates by calculating “the amount of return a person would have earned by instead investing that money in the stock market over the same period. We used the historical average market return rate for the S&P 500 minus the inflation rate during the same time period to reflect the return in present-value terms.” In other words, the assumption is that money not spent on cigarettes would have been dutifully and wisely invested over those same 51 years.
Similar assumptions have also been used in the now (mostly) discredited “latte factor,” which is the theory that holds that people can wind up with millions in the bank by cutting back on everyday expenses like a daily latte. Among other reasons, this line of thinking is questionable because people don’t necessarily invest money that they don’t spend on some product or service—they’re more likely to simply spend that money on something else.
WalletHub also includes other costs that many smokers never think about, factoring in added health care expenses (with state-by-state data from the CDC) and an 8% hit on income due to smoking, as determined in a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Add up all of these and a few other estimated expenses, and over the course of a half-century, the cost to the pack-a-day smoker runs $1 million to $2 million, according to WalletHub. Are the figures overblown? Well, perhaps a bit. There’s a good argument to be made that the data were construed to come up with totals that are as big and headline-worthy as possible. (After all, they got our attention.)
Nonetheless, even if the figures are on the inflated side, it’s an undeniable reality that the smoking habit costs big bucks over a lifetime. And oh yeah, it can make your lifetime a lot shorter. Let’s not forget that.