A… well, dream… of mine: what if smoking suddenly, overnight, became immediately lethal? To be more specific, this is about “active” smoking; bystanders aren’t affected.

To make things more interesting, let’s say every smoke (cigarette, pipe, cigar, tobacco-containing joint, every couple of pulls of an E-cigarette, etc.) has a true, independent, 50% chance of making you immediately keel over and die; anything else (if you don’t die from it immediately, it still tars your lungs; non-tobacco products are not affected) has not changed. Start at our current world, optionally up to three or so decades in the past.

I’m unsure which of these three possibilities helps making the storytelling more interesting, so feel free to use either in your answer (I’m not good at writing yet):

  • some scientists, newspapers or the like are informed anonymously (and untraceable) in advance of this (and, possibly, the futility of finding a cure), or
  • they are informed during the same night this lethality change is enacted, or
  • scientists have to figure out what’s causing all those deaths by themselves.

What’s the impact on the world as a whole? Wikipedia has some statistics, which makes the impact on e.g. Ethiopia (East Africa, the country that is green in both graphs, right besides the one with the horn) almost neglegible, but other countries are much more affected. I wonder how this is distributed (e.g. most people wouldn’t care if the state heads keel over as long as the infrastructure still works). What’s the impact on living for a (now former, probably) smoker, what on a non-smoker (besides the obvious rejoicing)? What about the children (besides the obvious – rejoicing at living smoke-free and, possibly, hurt because of parental death)? Surprise me. While I wish-dream of this occasionally, I’ve yet to build an image of a world changed like that in my head and would welcome the input.

PS: Extremely unsure about the tags, feel free to edit my question and fix them up.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What happens to nicotine-based products that don't involve smoking? E.g. the patch or nicotine gum. $\endgroup$
    – Brythan
    Dec 25, 2015 at 22:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Brythan interesting question. Let’s say nothing, unless that doesn’t work with the world you’re describing. $\endgroup$
    – mirabilos
    Dec 25, 2015 at 23:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What would also be interesting is a 1% chance each time. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel M.
    Mar 6, 2016 at 22:02

4 Answers 4


If there's a 50% chance of dying from one cigarette, that would become pretty obvious pretty quickly. You wouldn't need extensive scientific research. People would figure it out within a few weeks, tops. (Well, I'm assuming that you mean people smoke the cigarette and die almost instantly. If they smoke a cigarette and there's a 50% chance that they'd die 10 years later, figuring out the connection would of course be tougher.)

Presumably at that point almost all smokers would quit, and the few who didn't would be dead within weeks. (If you smoke one cigarette per day, the chance of surviving a week is 1 / 2^7, or less than 1%.)

The tobacco industry would go bankrupt. If this happened overnight, they'd have no time to switch to another product. Maybe some would figure out a way to survive. I'm not sure what that would be, but people can be creative.

Places where tobacco production is a major industry would be hit hard. If your town is surrounded by big tobacco farms that are bringing in a lot of money, than many people in town will go down with the tobacco farmers. The people who sell them farm machinery, the restaurants where they eat, the shops where they buy their clothes and furniture, etc, will all suddenly find that their customers have no money and so aren't buying any more.

Off the top of my head I don't know if there are any entire countries where tobacco is a critical industry. If so, it could have international political implications. Well, it would have at least some political implications in the U.S. States like North Carolina where there's a lot of tobacco farming would be hurt economically, people would move to other states looking for work, and so North Carolina would have fewer representatives in Congress and fewer votes for president.

(Not sure why you see this as a "wish dream". You want to see millions of innocent people die and millions more lose their jobs? Sounds kind of creepy to me. I can see saying "I don't smoke because of the health problems." But if there were no health problems, why would anyone be against smoking?)

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I said “immediately”. Hm, I was more interested about impact on unrelated industries, infrastructure, government (what sort of officials do smoke more/less than others), etc. but, a (quick!) start, and some points I had not thought of. The question about “lose their jobs” is whether there would be enough openings for them elsewhere (modulo required training which I know is not a myth), too… Let’s keep ethics aside (I could argue they’re not innocent of polluting my air, but… this was not the point). $\endgroup$
    – mirabilos
    Dec 25, 2015 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, if this happened right away it could easily be a good thing for the earth. Consider that the earth is severely overpopulated right now. Having a large amount of people die off within a short period of time via smoking-assisted-suicide seems like the perfect solution to reduce our population without using weapons of mass destruction. It even has the benefit of reducing the amount of waste produced per day, food/water consumed per day, pollution per day, etc. Overall, it leads to a much healthier earth. $\endgroup$
    – Aify
    Dec 26, 2015 at 1:03
  • $\begingroup$ I think overpopulation is pretty much a fear of the past. Every European country except Ireland now has less than 2 children per woman, so if trends continue population will fall anyway. Ditto Russia, Japan, and China. The only thing really keeping the West afloat population-wise these days is immigration. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Dec 26, 2015 at 6:11
  • $\begingroup$ Presumably people who lose their jobs will often, sooner or later, find other jobs. But suddenly wiping out a whole industry would create a shock to the economic system that would not be quickly or easily absorbed. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Feb 10, 2016 at 6:29
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know how a smoker feels, but maybe they can just invent a smoking machine and they themselves try to be bystanders? $\endgroup$
    – user23013
    Mar 5, 2016 at 18:45

The really interesting bit would be the first few hours. A lot of people smoke a lot of cigarettes every day. With a 50% chance of dying from each cigarette, someone who smokes a pack a day has a 99.9999% chance of dying in day 1, unless someone warns them. Presumably most people don't want to see their friends die, so this becomes a battle against the clock. How many people can be notified before they light up their deathsticks:


Twitter and crew will be at full velocity assisting the normal human network to ensure minimal casualties. This actually has some interesting effects of its own: Seismic Waves

After this, you have three socio-economic effects in play. One is a bunch of nicotine addicts now in withdraw. I've had friends try to quit cold turkey. It takes a lot of willpower... willpower most of these didn't think they were going to need today, until one of their friends snatched the cigarette out of their mouth to save their life:

enter image description here

One of my friends tried to quit smoking cold turkey. To help out, one of our mutual friends bet the guy \$20 he couldn't go a day without a cigarette. All he had to do was not smoke for a day, and collect his bet. A few hours later, after he lit up, he explained "Addictions are sneaky. Once you start craving, you'll believe all sorts of things. At some point, you can honestly believe your next hit is worth \$40."

The second socioeconomic issue is the sudden panic of hundreds of politicians. Countries like America fund all sorts of quirky projects off of tobacco taxes. It's a \$4 billion tax revenue for the USA. \$4 billion is honestly chump change compared to the \$3900 billion budget for the government, but this is a precious \$4 billion. Whenever a politician wants to do something they like, but can't find a way to pay for it, we love to hike up the taxes on the smokers. "Its good for them," we keep telling ourselves. Well, 4 billion dollars shorter, after we stop buying tobacco, and we'll find our politicians scurrying like rabbits to cover their pet projects!

The third effect? Suddenly, for no reason whatsoever, cigarettes magically went from bad for you to terribly-terribly lethal. Science is going to have a hard time explaining why they couldn't predict this from happening. Many religions will call it an act of their deity. Creationists will immediately begin using it to challenge the rule of the modern scientific community. Entire generations will be lost because science has proven itself so incredibly inept at detecting dangerous things in your universe!

  • $\begingroup$ "Creationists will immediately begin using it to challenge the rule of the modern scientific community." How so? They might use it to attack certain ideas/beliefs such as Scientism and Naturalism but beyond that what other efforts do you see them making? $\endgroup$
    – NPSF3000
    Dec 26, 2015 at 12:56
  • $\begingroup$ @NPSF3000 Right now there are a large number of people who believe science is a direct path to truth, mostly because they've not studied science well enough to understand what it actually does. A spectacular failure of science to discover this magically lethal concept would shake that faith, and the creationists would likely leverage that to disrupt faith in science so that the faith in their religion is more accepted. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 26, 2015 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ Good point. I would not want Creationists to take over. So we would have to find a scientific explanation for tobacco intolerance (yet, ideally, make it not easily curable). Wonderful answers here, you all are pointing out things that had not even occurred to me. This post is very USA-centric though. $\endgroup$
    – mirabilos
    Dec 26, 2015 at 20:19
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @mirabilos The trick is not that we need to find a scientific explanation, its that science needs to have an answer before it gets blindsided by the single most lethal inventions since the atomic bomb... no, including the atomic bomb. What good is science if it can't protect us when we need it most? What's next? Cellphones cancer? =) $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 26, 2015 at 20:26
  • $\begingroup$ Try talking to an actual Creationist or read a Creationist book. Creationists do not oppose "science". Creationists oppose one particular theory. They use scientific arguments against it. Whether you find their arguments convincing or not -- and you can't really answer that, because you apparently have no idea what their arguments are -- Creationists are firmly committed to the scientific method. There have been scientific debates throughout history. The people who turned out to be wrong were not necessarily "anti-science", just mistaken on one particular theory. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Feb 5, 2018 at 18:11

Nicotine is addictive. Smokers who stop will either need to find another source of nicotine or go through withdrawal. Some symptoms of nicotine withdrawal:

  • Headache.
  • Nausea.
  • Constipation or diarrhea.
  • Fatigue, drowsiness, and insomnia.
  • Irritability.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depressed mood.
  • Increased hunger and caloric intake
  • Increased desire for the taste of sweets
  • Tobacco cravings

So you should expect the results to be increases in sales of pharmaceuticals to address the symptoms. There would also be an increase in grocery and sweets sales, which would in turn cause weight gain and the associated health problems. I also wouldn't be surprised by an uptick in marijuana sales.

Tax revenues would fall. This would be especially bad at the state level. States often charge \$2-\$5 per pack. The sudden loss of this revenue would cause them to scramble for replacements.

In the long term, health care costs would drop but retirement costs (e.g. Social Security) would increase, as people would live longer. But in the short term, health care costs would stay the same. While quitting will always improve future health, most of the damage has already been done. People have to survive their current cancer before having a chance to avoid future illness.

Stopping cold turkey is hard. It's quite possible that a significant number of people will have just one more cigarette...ten times. That's a one in a thousand chance of survival. Expect tens of millions of deaths just in the USA. These deaths will reduce current tax revenues. There will also be drops in the costs of some services, but other services won't drop as much for years. Most people who smoke start when they are young, teens or early twenties. Smokers quit or die younger than others. So there is a distinct bias towards taxpayers among smokers. Social Security will be hard hit, as revenues will fall immediately while savings may not be realized for decades.

On the bright side, many more people will try the patch or nicotine gum. In each individual case, these are more expensive than cigarettes, but not everyone will use them. They may be cheaper overall.

If scientists have to figure out what is happening, it seems likely that nearly every smoker will die before scientists can figure things out. There are twenty cigarettes in a pack. That's a one in a million chance of survival. A typical smoker will smoke about a pack per day. If there are forty million smokers in the USA, figure on forty thousand surviving to learn what's happening.

If a warning is sent out as soon as it starts, more people will survive. But the truth is that almost all smokers know that smoking will be fatal but smoke anyway. It's unlikely that even an advance warning will prevent tens of millions of deaths. If everyone has just one more cigarette, twenty million will die. I think that this is optimistic. Four million survivors seems more feasible with advance notice.

Mortuary services will receive heavy use. Murders may increase--just plant a half-smoked cigarette on someone and there probably won't be an autopsy due to limited resources. There might be noticeable pollution from cremation. Graveyards will be full. Estate taxes will jump. People will have sudden windfalls. House prices will fall, as houses will suddenly become empty. Housing construction will fall due to the housing glut. There will be a recession as people adjust.

Some families will be harder hit than others. I can only think of one current smoker in my family, but I've known other families where all the adults smoked. Finding relatives to take the children might be difficult in those cases. Foster services would be overloaded.

Note that if this happened four years ago, Obama smoked. We might have had a President Biden. Biden might not have won in 2012 in the face of the resulting recession. Boehner smokes. Someone else might have been Speaker. I'm not going through the rest of the elected officials, but you may want to consider figuring it out for the setting of your story. That would be a reasonable follow up question: What legislative effects would there be on Cleveland, Ohio if 99% of all smokers suddenly died? Replace Cleveland, Ohio as appropriate. Consider giving an actual street address in the body of the question so as to allow people to work down all the way.

Note that my answer is somewhat USA-centric. I think that the same issues would apply elsewhere but of course the USA is what I know.


In a number of countries the taxation on cigarettes is in the 1,000% range.

In Australia, for example (using a packet of 25 cigarettes, and using AUD$, a population of almost 24,000,000):

Production cost for one packet: Roughly AUD$2-$3 (guess)

Sold for AUD$25-$30, tax roughly AUD$20 per packet.

Number of smokers: 1,000,000 (conservative estimate)

Assuming an average (maybe high) of 1 packet per day, Tax recovered: AUD$20,000,000

Per year tax recovered: AUD$7,300,000,000

If the Australian government suddenly lost this revenue, there would be a collapse of many services. Healthcare, infrastructure, government salaries, national credit rating, education, defence. All would be affected by a sudden loss of revenue on this magnitude.

IMHO, Governments are not so much interested in the health implications of people smoking, as much as they really do enjoy spending the revenue raised by the taxes on smoking.

Yes, I am a smoker, and I'm a bit cynical about the government approach to the health problems associated with smoking.

These numbers are rounded up, rounded down and guessed, so therefore not entirely accurate. But a ball park figure.

Current U.S population is roughly 326,000,000. Imagine the revenue there.

China's population is 1.4 billion.

  • $\begingroup$ "If the Australian government suddenly lost this revenue, there would be a collapse of many services." I smell something that reminds me of the excrement of a bovine animal. $\endgroup$
    – NPSF3000
    Dec 26, 2015 at 9:03
  • $\begingroup$ @NPSF3000 Maybe an exaggeration. But when a finely tuned system such as a national economy gets hit with something like a large revenue loss, it can throw things around in some unpredictable ways. I wrote this the morning after Christmas... Tired and maybe a little out of whack. Still, I stand by the general concepts expressed. $\endgroup$
    – Smoj
    Dec 26, 2015 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ "when a finely tuned system such as a national economy gets hit with something like a large revenue loss, it can throw things around in some unpredictable ways" you say that like Australia is a delicately balanced system. In recent years we've had a world financial crisis followed shortly thereafter by a major drop in resource prices (major export) - we've gone from USD/AUD = 0.6 to 1.1 back down to 0.7. Sure we've picked up hundreds of billions of debt, and have a deficit over $30Bn a year, yet none of the calamity you speak of is even in the picture. Tobacco is nothing in comparison $\endgroup$
    – NPSF3000
    Dec 26, 2015 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ On a more constructive note, the tax revenue tobacco brings is next to nothing... but the role of people who happen to be smokers in society and economy is huge. I'd have to imagine that with a single cigarette having a 50% kill rate suddenly, that at least half of that population would die, and possible nearly all (depends how quickly we can get the message out). The impact of that would the same as a massive catastrophe - smokers (apparently) make up roughly a quarter of our adult population! $\endgroup$
    – NPSF3000
    Dec 26, 2015 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ Hm, there would be a drop of income, sure, but what about ① the loss of workers, and ② the loss of people needing the infrastructure (also applies to health care costs in another answer); maybe ② would offset the rest? $\endgroup$
    – mirabilos
    Dec 26, 2015 at 20:22

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .