Labor Force Participation and Tobacco

At least for now, I am among the number of people who have dropped out of labor force participation.  I’m not employed and I’m not looking.   However, being a member of this group, I do pay attention to discussions about causes and implications of lower rate of participation of the labor force as shown in the trends.

Coincidentally, I have always wondered that one of the unintended consequences of the war on tobacco may be that it can reduce workforce participation.  Today I decided to compare the above trend with the trend of tobacco use.   They look about the same in shape and magnitude.

My first memory of considering this possible effect came in the early 1980s or late 1970s.  At that time there were many news stories of very sympathetic dying patients with grieving family where the cause of death was linked to smoking.   The sympathy was amplified by the fact that the patient was not retirement age and yet the children were at the age of starting college of their own careers.   At the very least, the death robbed society of many years of future employment, but clearly more was at stake emotionally for the family.

There were other discussions of how tobacco use can reduce labor hours due to absences to recover from short- and long-term illnesses even if the illnesses are not fatal.

I don’t doubt these observations.  Tobacco can cause illness.

Also, personally, I have never smoked.  I could brag that it was a result of listening to the advice I was given.  But in fact, a larger influence may have been from not wanting to be a slave to the habit necessary to always have smokes available and then the actions required to get the most out of the cigarette once it is lit.  That is just me.

Returning back to the stories of the unfortunate workers who suffered reduced availability to the workforce and thus less opportunity earn money for the family.   I thought of popular images of smokers when smoking was more acceptable.  Vintage photo-journalism of laborers with cigarettes on the job or during breaks.   Smoking depicted in movies.  Smoking in photographs of soldiers in world war II.

Smoking was a way to make the business of war more tolerable.

Of course, the smoking demographic has changed a lot in the last few decades.  But before it was demonized, there were a lot of people who were working in jobs that they didn’t exactly look forward to.   Workers had to conform to very tight constraints of the clock and of the specific jobs they were allowed and not allowed to do.   The work was boring and constraining.

Even from the start of my working career, it was not hard to imagine a significant minority who worked only because of the relief they got from the smoking whether it was on the job, during smoking breaks, or during their off time.

Besides the sympathies for people who suffer illnesses or early death, there was the economic appeal.   Many of these people were very productive at their jobs.  Their employers suffered a loss, especially of more experienced people.  But without cigarettes, would these people have stuck it out at their jobs for 20-30 years if they didn’t have the relief provided by cigarettes?  I think many would not have lasted.

Even today, for the majority of workers, employment is boring and frustrating.  The frustration is compounded by rules that do not make sense and that the employee has no influence to change.  The worker only wants some relief from the boredom and frustration.   Smoking seems to have been very effective at providing that relief, but that is no longer available.

There are other forms of relief today with a wider range of prescriptions of stimulants and anti-depressants.  Many workers have access to computer that can provide some relief from personal use of Internet (within limited tolerated by management).  I’m not sure they fully match the effectiveness of relief from smoking.

Over time, the fight against tobacco has had some success in reducing the number of smokers and this should improve health futures of the ones who would otherwise have been tobacco users.

But solving one problem may have exposed a problem that is inherent in the concept of employment.

The boredom and frustration of employment may be intolerable to some people.  Without a source of relief, they prefer to drop out.

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One thought on “Labor Force Participation and Tobacco

  1. Pingback: Modern sensitivity to offensive speech emerged out of the prohibition | kenneumeister

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