American jails are full of citizens for possessing small amounts of drugs. At the same time, smoking, an activity that kills almost 500,000 American annually, is allowed. Guns kill more than 30,000 Americans per year. They are also allowed.

In a civilized society, government limits on citizens’ actions should only apply where harm to either the individual being restricted or the society at large is significant. In the US, this is sadly not the case. Below, US government restrictions on human activities causing considerable harm are compared to with restrictions on activities causing little harm.

What Causes Harm?

If one measures harm by the number of deaths, smoking leads the list by a wide margin: in the US, more than 480,000 die annually from smoking. And tobacco contains nicotine, one of the most addictive drugs there is. 40,000 Americans commit suicide yearly. And every year, 34,000 Americans die in motor vehicle accidents and more than 2 million are injured annually. Guns are also a killer: more than 32,000 are killed annually by guns (that averages 88 daily) with more than 80,000 injured by guns.  

But number of deaths is not an accurate indicator of total harm. While only half as many people die from drinking than smoking every year, a good argument can be made that alcoholism is more harmful. Why? Because drunks lose jobs, kill people while driving, and destroy family/friend relationships.

As I have written in an earlier piece, the World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a “harm statistic” – the Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs). It measures years lost both because of a premature mortality and years lost due to time lived in less than full health. The DALYs for global self-inflicted harm are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. – Dangerous Addictions’ Share of Total DALYs, 2004

Source: WHO

Alcohol has the largest DALYs’ share even though DALYs do not include harm done to family/friend relationships. There are two other items worth noting in Table 1:

  • The inclusion of overeating as causing harm;
  • The small DALY share for illicit drugs.
  • Overeating Causes Harm: Where Are the Regs?

    The DALYs included in Table 1 for overeating come from the “Overweight and Obese” WHO category for all countries. WHO reports that even in developing countries, the number of obese children now exceeds the number malnourished.

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