@jacobgrier responds to my posts about smoking with a post that makes many interesting points. This one really caught my attention:
activists’ unwillingness to consider the benefits of smoking leads to excessively restrictive policies. Let’s take smoking bans for example. Consider two businesses:
Business 1 is a tobacco shop with an attached lounge that offers beer and wine. Customers are allowed to smoke there. It’s a freestanding building with no immediate neighbors, so no one except customers and employees is affected by the smoking. Four people are employed serving drinks in the lounge. A smoking ban passes that forces the business to eliminate drink service. The day the ban takes effect those four employees lose their jobs.
Business 2 is a restaurant that serves Dungeness crab caught in the Pacific Northwest. Commercial fishing has one of the highest fatality rates of any occupation and crabbing in this region is often the highest of all. For comparison, the average annual fatality rate for all occupations is 4 per 100,000 workers. For fishing as a whole the rate is 115/100,000. For Dungeness crab fishermen in the Pacific Northwest the rate is 463/100,000. (Source here.) There are no proposals to forbid restaurants from serving Dungeness crab.
I've thought about this too -- Nova Scotia has many memorials to fishermen lost at sea -- and I agree that it is an important puzzle. It would not surprise me to learn that variation in exposure to risks in the workplace explains as much or more about variation in mortality than does variation in diet, smoking, or drinking. Moreover, fishermen are not richly compensated for the risks they take. So Jacob's right -- there seems to be an inconsistency in how we react to these two businesses.
I want to be an ethical consumer. So it seems that I should think about the human costs of producing foods and other commodities in making decisions about purchases. Eating fish is not an issue for me, since I'm a vegetarian on religious and ethical grounds. But what about wood products (56 deaths / 100,000 per year)? Electricity produced by coal mining (22 / 100,000)? It's not clear to me how I can practically make choices here. Can one refuse to sleep in wooden beds or enter wooden houses? I don't see sockets labeled "wind-powered" (assuming that is indeed safer).
This seems to be an argument for better safety regulation and better enforcement of existing safety regulation in these industries. It seems to me that the human cost of producing these products is not adequately captured by the market price. This would save lives. It would also raise the price, encouraging customers to shift to cheaper and one hopes safer alternative products: saving lives but costing jobs. That seems the best course, on balance.