Economic and Natural Disasters since 1900

Economic and Natural Disasters since 1900

A Comparative History

John Singleton

In the wake of the global financial and Eurozone upheavals this timely book argues that the disaster cycle – a framework normally used in the context of natural disasters – is equally applicable to the analysis of other types of catastrophe. Employing a modified version of the disaster cycle framework to compare and analyse a range of catastrophes in different spheres, the author draws on ideas from a variety of disciplines including economics and economic history, disaster studies, management, and political science. This unique comparative approach presents case studies of several important disasters: Hurricane Katrina, the First World War, the depression of the early 1930s, Welsh coal mining accidents, the deadly effects of smoking tobacco, and the Global Financial Crisis and Eurozone catastrophe of the early twenty first century. The author argues that economists and economic policy makers routinely misuse the term crisis to describe episodes that ought to be called disasters.

Chapter 6: Tobacco

John Singleton

Subjects: economics and finance, economic psychology, financial economics and regulation, history of economic thought, regional economics, environment, disasters


Even major tobacco companies now concede that smoking causes harm and death. According to British American Tobacco, ‘Along with the pleasures of smoking there are real risks of serious diseases such as lung cancer, respiratory disease and heart disease’ (British American Tobacco n.d.). In an interview with the Independent newspaper in 2012, John Seffrin, Chief Executive of the American Cancer Society, warned that on current trends tobacco smoking will cause the deaths of 1 billion people in the twenty-first century, and that would make it the ‘biggest public health disaster in the history of the world’ (quoted in Connor 2012). Tobacco has been a disaster in slow motion. The adverse health effects of smoking took several hundred years to pin down scientifically. Damage to the individual smoker accumulates over a period of decades. Speed, however, is not an essential component of disasters. A far more pertinent benchmark is the extent of the disruption and loss incurred. In Collapse, Jared Diamond (2005) shows how a number of societies, from Easter Island to Viking Greenland, gradually destroyed themselves over long periods of time, most notably because of their failure to protect and manage the environment. Diamond’s societal collapses unfolded even more slowly than the tobacco disaster in the mid-twentieth century. Nevertheless, the fact that smoking kills in slow motion does have implications for the disaster cycle.

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