Smoking Wars


When Bob Dole suggested that tobacco is not addictive for everyone, journalists and anti-smoking activists reacted as if he had declared the earth was flat. Yet while Dole spoke a bit loosely, the gist of his comments is so plainly true that it's hard to see what all the fuss was about. "To some people, smoking is addictive," he said during a visit to Kentucky on June 13. "To others, they can take it or leave it. Most people don't smoke at all." His take was similar in an interview with ABC's Peter Jennings that aired two weeks later: "My nonscientific view is that it's a habit. Some people who have tried it can quit easily. Others don't quit. So I guess it's addictive to some and not to others."

For observing that smoking is neither irresistible nor inescapable, Dole was pilloried as a tobacco-industry puppet. Never mind that what he said happens to be true, or that he also said cigarettes are harmful and people shouldn't smoke– noting that he himself had a hard time quitting and that his brother, a heavysmoker, had died of emphysema. The crucial point was that the tobacco companies had given Dole and the Republican Party a lot of money, so he was clearly in league with the devil.

This fact-resistant, Manichean world view dominates media coverage of smoking, including allegedly neutral reporting. It was exhibited with especially comic frankness in "Never Say Die," the edition of Peter Jennings Reporting in which Dole offered his common-sensical ideas about tobacco addiction. The report was supposed to address the question, "How can the tobacco companies continue to not just survive, but prosper, when so many of their customers do not?" Implicit in the question is the sense that the tobacco companies shouldn't be surviving, let alone prospering. At the beginning of the show, Jennings explains why: Cigarettes are "the only product that you can buy virtually anywhere which, when used as directed, kills more than 400,000 Americans a year." At the end of the show, he observes that the death toll from smoking is equivalent to "three jumbo jets full of passengers" crashing "every single day . . . 365 days of the year."

Both lines are standard bits of anti-smoking rhetoric, so familiar that they have become the stuff of satire. Yet Jennings presents them as if they were startling news. And well he should, because his entire report hinges on the body count that frames it. For tobacco's opponents, such numbers demonstrate that the cigarette business is "a killer industry." And they don't mean that figuratively. A prominent anti-smoking activist has written that the tobacco companies are "literally getting away with murder." If you begin with the assumption that selling cigarettes is tantamount to homicide, you needn't work very hard to convict Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, et al. It's enough to show that they behave like any other industry: They advertise their (deadly) products! They give money to (corrupt) politicians! They oppose (life-saving) regulations!

This is the approach that Jennings takes, relying on his audience's predisposition to see tobacco companies as sinister. Sometimes the results are amusing. In one segment, two ABC producers pose as businessmen thinking of opening a "deli and smoke shop" in Louisville, Kentucky. They meet with several tobacco sales representatives, each of whom insists that retailers should never, ever sell cigarettes to minors. Shocking stuff, and it's all captured by a hidden camera. The closest thing to an incriminating statement comes from the Philip Morris rep, who concedes that his company's program to discourage under-age smoking is motivated partly by a desire to head off regulation. He adds, "It's also, we feel, the right thing to do." It's hard to say which is more surprising: that tobacco sales reps are so upright even in private, or that ABC would waste precious minutes of prime time on such lame footage.

Jennings also interviews some experts on addiction and advertising: a bunch of teenagers smoking in a parking lot. One reports that he gave up cigarettes for a week once, but it didn't take. Another observes that when you're around kids who are smoking, you want a cigarette too. A third says that of course tobacco ads are aimed at kids, because "when you're little, you want a pony. What does the Marlboro Man ride?"

The arguments that Jennings offers are not much more persuasive. When a woman who helped develop the Joe Camel ad campaign says she thinks of him as "a person who exhibits a certain way of looking at life" rather than a cartoon, the camera flashes pictures of Joe Camel ads to show us that he is, in fact, a cartoon. Another audacious lie!

The same woman tells Jennings that R. J. Reynolds hoped cool, suave Joe Camel would appeal to 18-to-24-year-olds, but she concedes the company had no way of making sure that he would not also appeal to people younger than 18. In response to RJR's plea of not guilty to the charge of corrupting minors, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler says, "Tell me how you design an advertising campaign that affects only 18-year-olds." Which is sort of the point. If cigarette companies have to avoid any ad that might catch the eye or tickle the fancy of a 16-year-old, they might as well not advertise at all.

No doubt that would suit Kessler just fine.

It's hard to fathom why so much attention is focused on advertising—which has, at most, a subtle impact on a teenager's propensity to smoke—when the laws against selling cigarettes to minors are barely enforced. As Jennings shows, it's very easy for kids to obtain cigarettes. Merchants rarely ask for proof of age, and vending machines are often left unsupervised. Cutting off the supply completely is an unrealistic goal, but states and municipalities could certainly do a much better job of enforcing the existing laws. Of course, that would leave no room for David Kessler.

The FDA commissioner, who wants to regulate cigarettes as "nicotine delivery devices," argues that people keep smoking because they can't help it. Most smokers start as teenagers, and by the time they're old enough to know better, it's too late. They're hooked. After all, nicotine is addictive. This view of smoking (and addiction in general) is a vast oversimplification. Bob Dole's "nonscientific" view is actually more sophisticated. As he noted, many people who try cigarettes never become regular smokers, and many regular smokers quit, some easily and some (like Dole) with much difficulty. There are almost as many former smokers in this country as there are smokers, and the vast majority of them gave up the habit on their own, without formal treatment.

On the other hand, some 45 million Americans continue to smoke, despite the availability of nicotine gum and patches. Given the hazards of smoking, that choice would be puzzling if, as Kessler suggests, all they wanted was a nicotine fix. Such a reductionist view of smoking also fails to explain why so many smokers who try to quit go back to the habit long after any withdrawal symptoms have disappeared. Clearly, smoking served an important function in their lives—relieving boredom, soothing distress, aiding concentration, warding off loneliness—and they miss it.

When Kessler says smoking is "a pediatric disease," he's implying that smokers who take up the habit as teenagers should be treated like children for the rest of their lives. By calling behavior a disease, he obscures the fact that, whenever they start, smokers choose to continue smoking every day. They may be ambivalent about it, but they have implicitly decided that the costs of quitting exceed the benefits. Indeed, if we could somehow prevent everyone under the age of 18 from lighting up, many people would still choose to smoke. This simple fact—the real reason "the tobacco companies continue to not just survive, but prosper"—seems to elude both Kessler and Jennings.

Kessler is the hero of Jennings's story, and all who oppose him are pawns of the villainous tobacco industry. Noting that think tanks and members of Congress who criticize the FDA receive contributions from cigarette companies, Jennings implies that complaints about the agency's inefficiency and overzealousness are a way of punishing Kessler for his foray into tobacco regulation. The flaw in this theory is that conservatives and libertarians were calling for reform of the FDA before Kessler decided that cigarettes were covered by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Could some of these critics be acting on principle, instead of simply carrying water for the merchants of death? Jennings never considers the possibility that politicians and think tanks might get tobacco money because they support certain policies, rather than the other way around.

For Jennings, there is no legitimate opposition to the war on tobacco. Smoking is an unequivocal evil that needs to be stamped out. "The cigarette companies have been winning," Jennings claims, "in part because there's never been a national debate about the death and destruction which smoking causes." Anybody want to make the case for death and destruction?

This article appeared in the July 29, 1996 National Review.