Passive smoking? Your pet budgie is deadlier

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The Independent Culture
Now here is something that seems awfully unfair to me. Because I am an American and you, bless your heart, are not, it appears that I am twice as likely as you to suffer an untimely and accidental death.

I know this because I have just been reading something called The Book of Risks: Fascinating Facts About the Chances We Take Every Day by a statistical wonk (to use the engaging new American term for a boffin-type person) named Larry Laudan.

It is full of interesting and useful statistics, mostly to do with coming irremediably a cropper in the United States. I know that if I happen to take up farm work this year I am three times more likely to lose a limb, and twice as likely to be fatally poisoned, than if I just sit here quietly. I now know that my chances of being murdered some time in the next 12 months are one in 11,000, of choking to death one in 150,000, of being killed by a dam failure one in 10 million, and of being fatally conked on the head by something falling from the sky about one in 250 million. Even if I stay indoors, away from the windows, there is a one in 450,000 chance that something will kill me before the day is out. I find that rather alarming.

However, nothing is more galling than the discovery that just by being an American, by standing to attention for the "Star-Spangled Banner" and having a baseball cap as a central component of my wardrobe, I am twice as likely to die in a mangled heap as you are. This is not a just way to decide mortality.

Mr Laudan does not explain why Americans are twice as dangerous to themselves as Britons (too upset, I daresay), but I have been thinking about it a good deal, as you can imagine, and the answer - very obvious when you reflect for even a moment - is that America is an outstandingly dangerous place.

Consider this: every year in New Hampshire a dozen or more people are killed crashing their cars into moose. Now correct me if I am wrong, but this is not something that is likely to happen to you on the way home from Sainsbury's. Nor are you likely to be eaten by a grizzly bear or mountain lion, butted senseless by buffalo, or seized about the ankle by a seriously perturbed rattlesnake - all occurrences that knock off a few dozen hapless Americans every year. Then there are all the violent acts of nature - tornadoes, rockslides, avalanches, flash floods, paralysing blizzards, the odd earthquake - that scarcely exist in your tranquil little island, but kill hundreds of Americans every year.

Finally, and above all, there is the matter of guns. There are 200 million guns in the United States and we do rather like to pop them off. Each year, 40,000 Americans die from gunshot wounds, most by accident. Just to put that in perspective, that's a rate of 6.8 gunshot deaths per 100,000 people in America, compared with a meagre 0.4 per 100,000 in the UK.

America is, in short, a pretty risky place. And yet, oddly, we get alarmed by all the wrong things in this country. Eavesdrop on almost any conversation at Lou's Diner here in Hanover and the talk will all be of cholesterol and sodium levels, mammograms and resting heart rates. Show most Americans an egg yolk and they will recoil in terror, but the most palpable and avoidable risks scarcely faze them.

Forty per cent of Americans still don't use a seatbelt, which I find simply amazing because it costs nothing to buckle up and clearly has the potential to save you from exiting through the windscreen like Superman. Even more remarkably, since a spate of recent newspaper reports about young children being killed by airbags in minor crashes, people have been rushing to get their airbags disconnected. Never mind that in every instance the children were killed because they were sitting on the front seat, where they should not have been in the first place, and in nearly all cases weren't wearing seatbelts. Airbags save thousands of lives, yet many people are having them disabled on the bizarre assumption that they present a danger.

Much the same sort of statistical illogic applies to guns. Forty per cent of Americans keep guns in their homes, typically in a drawer beside the bed. The odds that one of those guns will ever be used to shoot a criminal are comfortably under one in a million. The odds that it will be used to shoot a member of the household - generally a child fooling around - are at least 20 times that figure. Yet over one hundred million people resolutely ignore this fact, even sometimes threaten to pop you one themselves if you make too much noise about it.

Nothing, however, better captures the manifest irrationality of people towards risks as one of the liveliest issues of recent years: passive smoking. Four years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report concluding that people who are over 35 and don't smoke but are regularly exposed to the smoke of others stand a one in 30,000 risk of contracting lung cancer in a given year. The response was immediate and electrifying. All over the country smoking was banned - at work, in restaurants, shopping malls and other public places.

What was overlooked in all this was how microscopically small the risk from passive smoking actually is. A rate of one in 30,000 sounds reasonably severe, but it doesn't actually amount to much. Eating one pork chop a week is statistically more likely to give you cancer than sitting routinely in a roomful of smokers. So, too, is consuming a carrot every seven days, a glass of orange juice once a fortnight, or a head of lettuce every two years. You are five times more likely to contract lung cancer from your pet budgie than you are from secondary smoke.

Now I am all for banning smoking on the grounds that it is dirty and offensive, unhealthy for the user and leaves unsightly burns in the carpet. All I am saying is that it seems a trifle odd to ban it on grounds of public safety when you are happy to let any old fool own a gun or drive around unbuckled. But then logic seldom comes into these things. I remember some years ago watching my brother buy a lottery ticket (odds of winning about one in 12 million), then get in his car and fail to buckle up (odds of having a serious accident in any year: one in 40). When I pointed out the inconsistency of this, he looked at me for a moment and said: "And what are the odds, do you suppose, that I will drop you four miles short of home?" Since then, I have kept these thoughts pretty much to myself. Much less risky, you see.

Extracted from `Notes from a Big Country' (Doubleday, pounds 16.99)