What will our vices look like in the history books?
This term I’m learning some more microeconometrics by way of a health policy class, so I have epidemiology on the brain. I’m about halfway through Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I am enjoying it, but a little less than I thought I would, from the reviews. Mukherjee has a grating fondness for overwrought metaphors and several unconvincing theories relating attitudes towards cancer to America’s place in the world. But the middle chapters on efforts to compare cancer rates and outcomes over time and how researchers worked out the link between smoking and cancer are fascinating. Here’s one stat that I’ve been thinking about:
By 1953, the average annual consumption of cigarettes had reached thirty-five hundred per person. On average, an adult American smoked ten cigarettes every day, an average Englishman twelve, and a Scotsman nearly twenty. (241)
It reminds me of a similar passage from another recent nonfiction hit, Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
By 1830 Americans were guzzling, per capita, a staggering seven gallons of pure alcohol a year. […] In modern terms those seven gallons are equivalent of 1.7 bottles of standard 80-proof liquor per person, per week—nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation, even with abstainers (and there were millions of them) factored in. Once again figuring per capita, multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you’ll have an idea of what much of the nineteenth century was like. (8)
So this is what I’m wondering: What current habit will seem as absurd to future readers as these do to us now? Salt or saturated fat consumption? Physical inactivity among office workers? Some food additive or packaging material?