Congress

Tobacco Deal Offers Something for Everyone—Except the Smokers

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Here is how White House adviser Rahm Emanuel describes the choice confronting members of Congress as they debate tobacco legislation this spring: "They can either stand shoulder to shoulder with corporate tobacco and their profits or protect our children and insure their health and safety."

From this gloss you would not guess that the Clinton administration is allied with "corporate tobacco" in pushing for legislation. Indeed, if Congress approves a package that resembles the deal proposed last summer by the cigarette companies and state attorneys general, it will offer something for just about everyone.

The industry will get protection against the vicissitudes of litigation and regulation. The politicians will get credit for saving the youth of America from Big Tobacco, plus money to pay for their favorite spending initiatives. The trial lawyers will get huge fees (the largest in history, even judging from the lowball estimates). Anti-smoking activists, public health officials, and researchers will get billions of dollars for "tobacco control" programs, including a $500-million-a-year ad campaign.

The only interested party that's been excluded from the negotiations is the one picking up the tab. In fact, the whole arrangement can be viewed as an indirect way of raising the cigarette tax-which happens to be one of the most regressive levies around, since the poor smoke more than the rich and devote a larger share of their income to the habit.

It's remarkable how readily so many liberals, who usually are keen on redistributing income from the top down, have accepted the idea that cabbies and waitresses should kick in an extra $1.50 a pack so a bunch of fat-cat plaintiffs' attorneys can buy yachts and vacation homes. The willingness to impose this burden on smokers-for their own good, of course-reflects the mixture of pity and hostility with which they are increasingly viewed.

On the one hand, advocates of tobacco legislation want to pretend they're punishing the evil cigarette makers, who trick people into smoking with clever advertising and trap them in a deadly habit before they're old enough to know better. On the other hand, the proposed deal not only allows but requires the tobacco companies to recover the cost of their payments by raising cigarette prices. We are told this will discourage consumption and force smokers to compensate the rest of us for the costs they supposedly impose on society.

So which is it? Are smokers victims of the tobacco companies, enslaved by nicotine at a tender age and deserving of sympathy rather than censure? Or are they reckless risk-takers, irresponsibly forcing other people to pay for the consequences of their behavior? Is nicotine irresistible and inescapable, or is it something you can take or leave, depending upon the price?

Tobacco's opponents want to have it both ways. Defending regulation of the industry by the Food and Drug Administration, then-FDA Commissioner David Kessler said "most smokers are in effect deprived of the choice to stop smoking." Defending bans on smoking outside the home, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop insisted that "smoking is a voluntary act: one does not have to smoke if one does not want to."

Deep down, people like Koop and Kessler probably recognize that smoking is a choice; it's just not a choice they understand or respect. Hence the effort to infantilize smokers. Kessler says they are suffering from a "a pediatric disease." Ads sponsored by the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids announce, "Every Day, Without Action on Tobacco, 1,000 Kids Will Die Early." More than 90 percent of smokers are adults, and if they die from their habit, it's only after they've been puffing away for many years. "Kids" do not get lung cancer. The implicit message is that smokers should be treated like kids, immature beings who need to be protected from their own foolishness.

Tobacco's opponents view smoking as fundamentally irrational. From a "public health" perspective, which focuses on minimizing morbidity and mortality, the decision to accept long-term risks in exchange for short-term benefits, to trade longevity for pleasure, simply does not make sense. We should think long and hard before we allow that perspective to dictate national policy. If the government has the authority to discourage behavior that might lead to disease or injury, there is no end to the interference that could be justified in the name of public health.