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Taking stock of your smoking habit

We are rapidly becoming an intolerant society. Or, at least, that's the case when it comes to smoking. I remember the day when you could light up anywhere. Then restaurants began offering seating in smoking or nonsmoking sections. Now these establishments and most office buildings and public facilities don't allow smoking at all.

Actually, none of this bothers me much because I dislike the smell of smoke.

But things have gotten out of hand. Last week, an article in USA Today described a disturbing trend among some U.S. companies to clamp down on the smoking behavior among their employees. I'm not talking about just forbidding smoking during the workday, but prohibiting it altogether.

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For instance, two years ago a Seattle property management firm decided to hire only nonsmokers. Smokers who have been employed with the firm before the policy went into effect can still work there, but are refused medical coverage.

Other firms demand that their employees refrain from smoking at any time. These firms administer random tests to ensure their workers are tobacco-free. The consequence of smoking on the sly: Workers could be fired.

A costly habit
In a way, it's easy to understand why companies would rather have nonsmokers on their payrolls and in their health plans. Smoking is an expensive habit from the standpoint of business, and even of society. The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion estimates that tobacco use causes more than 440,000 deaths each year. The federal agency puts the medical tab at $75 billion annually.

Smokers' rights groups will surely fight this discriminatory trend among employers, particularly if it spreads. They should, because it threatens their lifestyle, their privacy and their right to work. Some 22 percent of American adults smoke cigarettes.

But I wonder if smokers choose to smoke. I'd be willing to wager that most smokers would really like to quit. It's just that they can't, because they're addicted to the nicotine and the other insidious additives that tobacco companies put in their products.

As a former smoker, I don't judge other smokers. I do remember the powerful draw of cigarettes and my self-contempt for being unable to immediately break the habit. I smoked for 10 years, starting as a kid. It took me a full year of false starts and renewed commitments before I could finally kick the habit. It's been 25 years and 33 days since I last took a drag on a fag.

I asked a close family member, age 23, why he smokes and if he enjoys it. He started smoking again three years ago, after quitting for about a year. "I enjoyed it at first, but not now," he said. "Now it's just a habit I want to break."

An investor's dream
This admission on his part inspires me to come up with excellent reasons for him -- and all smokers who are open to quitting -- to say goodbye to tobacco forever. But before we get into that, take a stab at answering this question: What was the best-performing stock in the Standard & Poor's 500 index between 1957 and 2003?

No, I'm not changing the subject. The answer is Philip Morris, recently renamed "Altria," a nonword that sounds like a New Age wind instrument. If you had invested $1,000 in an S&P index fund on March 1, 1957, and held on until the end of 2003, your investment would have grown to $125,000. But if you had put the money into Philip Morris stock, you would have enjoyed a 19.75 percent annualized return, and your portfolio would be worth more than $4.6 million! The calculation assumes you reinvested all dividends in more shares of the stock and held onto all corporate spinoffs. (Since the end of 2003, the stock price has appreciated another 19 percent.)

-- Posted: May 18, 2005




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