How Not to Quit Smoking: A Critique of ‘Quit 2 Win’

August 27, 2007

How not to Stop Smoking:
A Critique of Indiana’s “Quit 2 Win”
Indiana Writers Group column for release Aug. 29 and thereafter
Digital mug shot available on request
607 words
By Craig Ladwig

The “Quit 2 Win” anti-smoking contest of the Indiana State Department of Health is up against a famous thought experiment, one that predicts it will produce more smokers not less — if in fact it has any effect at all.  

Twenty-four years ago, the social scientist Charles Murray wrote the bestseller “Losing Ground.” He described an imaginary anti-smoking contest with rewards far more generous than Indiana can afford, proposing as an experiment that the government pay people who had smoked a pack a day for five years $10,000 each to quit.  

Murray’s logic was this:  

1. The $10,000 prizes first of all would be claimed by smokers who already had decided to quit, producing no real smoking reduction.  

2. Next, those smoking less than a full pack a day would have reason to increase their intake to qualify; likewise, those who had smoked less than the five years would be motivated to continue smoking.
3. Finally, young nonsmokers would have a new incentive to take up the habit on the actuarial calculation that they could smoke the five years, claim the cash and do only minimal damage to their lungs.
“My conclusion is that social programs in a democratic society tend to produce net harm in dealing with the most difficult problems,” Murray concluded in his chapter on smoking cessation. “They will inherently tend to have enough of an inducement to produce bad behavior and not enough of a solution to stimulate good behavior; and the more difficult the problem, the more likely it is that this relationship will prevail.”
Fortunately, the rewards for entering Indiana’s “Quit 2 Win” contest, which begins Sept. 15, are likely too small to increase smoking here. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone but the most maniacal — and legally adept — solving its maze of 19 rules and requirements. It is even harder to imagine it being achieved during acute nicotine withdrawal.
And there is a question of whether the rules are even enforceable. Rule five, for example, warns that “a potential winner(s) must supply a creditable character reference who can certify his or her prior smoking status and non-smoking status during the contest period.” Rules seven and eight advise that “the winners must refrain from smoking for an unspecified time after the awards are announced and must submit to drug tests. And, of course, Rule 12 reminds us that, “all winner(s) are subject to Indiana State laws and responsible for all appropriate taxes.”  

But even if the Department of Health applies thumbscrews to those “character” witnesses, its contest will break at least three of Murray’s laws:  

• The Law of Imperfect Selection: “Any objective rule that defines eligibility for a social transfer program will irrationally exclude some persons.”  

• The Law of Unintended Rewards: “Any social transfer increases the net value of being in the condition that prompted the transfer.”  

• The Law of Net Harm: “The less likely it is that the unwanted behavior will change voluntarily, the more likely it is that a program to induce change will cause net harm.”  

Will the contest fail? Not really, because we all understand that it is a political gesture in an election year, an expression of good intentions, a statement that our government isn’t only interested in taxing smokers but would reform them as well. Public expectations, understandably, are low.  

Even so, should government take the position that cigarette smoking, one of the most gripping of human addictions, can be overcome as easily as entering a mail-order contest?  

The question should be put to Hoosiers who actually have quit smoking. It might be that a heroic attitude,  combined with continuous albeit unofficial prayer, all carefully synchronized with an individual forbearance approaching the saintly, would be more effective.   

Craig Ladwig is editor of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.

1. Charles Murray. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980. Basic Books. (Tenth anniversary edition) 1994.
2. Official rules of “Quit 2 Win” at Last viewed Aug. 20, 2007.



Leave a Reply