Tobacco Terror


When legislation attracts broad, bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, chances are it is either a worthless piece of symbolism or an assault on individual freedom. The tobacco bill making its way through Congress is both.

The version approved by the Senate Commerce Committee would take half a trillion dollars from smokers and give it to trial lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats, researchers, and anti-smoking activists. The exact division of the spoils is yet to be determined.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, would also impose sweeping restrictions on tobacco advertising and promotion (in exchange for a yearly cap on liability); give the Food and Drug Administration broad authority to manipulate nicotine; and impose billions of dollars in fines on the tobacco companies if teenagers do not comply with official goals for reducing underage smoking.

This is how White House adviser Rahm Emanuel describes the choice confronting members of Congress as they consider this legislation: "They can either stand shoulder to shoulder with corporate tobacco and their profits or protect our children and insure their health and safety." Legislators are so terrified of seeming to side with "corporate tobacco" against "our children" that they have abandoned critical thinking, along with their principles.

No one is asking why raising the price of cigarettes–by $1.10 a pack under the McCain bill–is an appropriate strategy for dealing with underage smoking. It is already illegal in every state for minors to buy cigarettes. Instead of enforcing those laws, tobacco's opponents want to penalize all smokers, more than 90 percent of whom are adults.

Supporters of the tobacco legislation like to pretend they're punishing the evil Merchants of Death. Yet the bill requires cigarette makers to pass on the cost of their payments to customers. The willingness to impose this burden on smokers seems odd, since the industry's critics depict them as unwilling victims of "a pediatric disease," seduced by advertising and trapped by nicotine before they're old enough to know better.

Speaking of advertising, there is little reason to believe that restricting or banning it would have a measurable impact on smoking rates. Anti-smoking activists acknowledged as much last summer, when the tobacco companies and state attorneys general unveiled their nationwide settlement proposal. After complaining for decades that people smoke because of advertising, tobacco's opponents yawned at the industry's offer of self-censorship, which became the basis for the restrictions in the McCain bill.

As for nicotine, everyday experience, backed up by survey data, demonstrates that it is neither irresistible nor inescapable. The very idea that people will stop smoking when the price of cigarettes goes up–one of the main premises underlying the tobacco legislation–hinges on the ability of smokers to control their own behavior.

The lack of skepticism about the tobacco bill is especially striking because the legislation contradicts positions on which members of Congress usually pride themselves.

Republicans are against tax increases–but not if a hike can be disguised as an assessment against the tobacco companies, which then raise cigarette prices to pay it.

Democrats support progressive taxation–but not when it comes to the cigarette tax, which is one of the most regressive levies around (since the poor smoke more 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 cab drivers and waitresses should kick in an extra buck or two a pack to help rich plaintiffs' attorneys buy new vacation homes.

Republicans favor federalism–but not when they're trying to distance themselves from Big Tobacco. Then they're happy to support a national tobacco policy for which there is no constitutional authority.

Democrats defend freedom of speech–but not for people who make cigarettes. They'd rather see Nazis march through Skokie than see the Marlboro Man ride across a billboard.

Republicans are suspicious of overreaching government–but not when it comes to "public health," which gives busybodies an unlimited license to interfere with choices that might lead to disease or injury.

Democrats insist on a woman's right to control her own body–but not if she's a smoker.

Members of Congress are not forsaking truth and principle just for the hell of it, of course. They're doing it to protect "our children"–yet another sacrifice for which the kids should be grateful.