To Understand Health-Care Crisis, Watch Mad Men

It's been one of the talking points in the battle for major health-care reform -- for all our medical technology, Americans have a lower life expectancy than that of other developed countries. Like Europe, where people smoke like chimneys. Far more than Americans do. So what gives?

Today's New York Times provides an answer to that riddle: The Americans who collectively are dragging down that life expectancy statistic belong to a generation that came of age in the 1950s and 60s, when Americans smoked at a rate that was actually higher than Europe. If it's hard to imagine, watch Mad Men.

A big winner in this weekend's Emmys, Mad Men's third season is set in 1963. In that huge cast, only a few characters don't smoke -- Pete, Peggy, and Bert, off the top of my head. Add the plates of bacon and sausage for breakfast, plus the fast-food joints that were springing up in rural parts of America, and it's no wonder that generation's making an early exit.

Younger generations who smoke less can make up that gap, says Dr. Samuel H. Preston, speaking in the Times article:

"The U.S. has had one spectacular achievement in preventive medicine," he says. "It has had the largest drop in cigarette consumption per adult of any developed country since 1985." If Americans keep shunning cigarettes, the longevity gap could shrink no matter what happens with the health care system.

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