Friday, February 9, 2007

Fill 'er Up with Air: the 25¢/Gallon Asthma Tax

Greetings, fellow nerds.

Today I'm going to quantify the asthma cost of burning one gallon of gas in the US. Car-derived air pollution is a major contributor to asthma in the United States. Human suffering aside, let's estimate the cost of providing asthma care associated with burning 1 gallon of gas, and figure out who should bear that cost.

Economic Burden of Asthma

A 2003 study estimates the per-capita cost of asthma to be $4,912, and in 2004 there were 17,624,930 Americans with asthma. The total cost of asthma to the US is therefore about $87 billion, although it's likely to have increased since 2004. To put that in perspective, the US trade deficit for 2004 was $611 billion, less than 7 times the cost of asthma.

In 2004, the US burned 20 million barrels of oil per day, which works out to 318 billion gallons for the year. If we were to attribute all the asthma in 2004 to vehicle-caused air pollution, the asthma cost per gallon of gas burned would be just over 27¢. The 2007 costs of asthma must be greater than 2004's 27¢ per gallon, but on the other hand not 100% of asthma is caused by air pollution. (However, asthma rates have quadrupled in the last few decades according to the WHO, suggesting that human-made factors like air pollution play an overwhelming, if not exclusive, role.) In any case, for every gallon of gas you burn, you do approximately a quarter's worth of damage through asthma.

Benefits of the Asthma Tax

Let's add an asthma tax to gas and make it pay for everyone's asthma treatment. It wouldn't be prohibitively expensive; I bet the per-capita cost of asthma would also go down if treatment were universally free, since the cost of treating acute attacks of people who rush into emergency rooms must be a lot higher than the cost of preventative care. This cost-reduction from efficient treatment would mean the average American would pay less total in health insurance premiums and gas combined. Those without insurance would also suffer less, let's not forget. It would be only those whose lifestyle currently creates disproportionally-large asthma suffering who would suffer under the asthma tax.

The Asthma Tax and 21st Century Capitalism

As long as the asthma tax were related to the true cost of asthma care, auto manufacturers would have a financial incentive to keeping the skies clean: they believe they can sell more cars with the price of gas low, and a low incidence of asthma would lower the at-the-pump price. The public and private incentives would be aligned, which is what 21st century capitalism is all about: getting people working together.

Let's not forget the human element of 21st century capitalism. A disproportionate number of poor urbanites suffer from asthma. Imagine the effect of the goodwill they would feel if the rich showed a little compassion by at least paying for the medical treatment of the damage they've done with their smog. If you actively oppose a measure which lowers costs and brings goodwill to humanity, you're a troll.

Conclusion: Let's Do It

In conclusion, the quarter-a-gallon gas tax would relieve human suffering, decrease the financial burden of treating asthma, and provide a direct incentive to auto manufacturers to start taking better care of us. It's a win-win situation; let's get started.