On June 17, the day the McCain tobacco bill died, C. Everett Koop delivered a stern lecture. The former surgeon general issued a scolding press release that illuminated the mindset of the nation's most famous anti-smoker and the assumptions of the movement he represents.
"I am terribly disappointed in the Senate's action," said Koop, taking advantage of his image as the taciturn grandfather no one dares provoke. "Most Republican Senators know that they should be protecting children and not big tobacco, but they just couldn't make themselves do the right thing."
You can almost picture Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott hanging his head in shame upon reading these words. He and his friends knew better, but they kept running with those merchants of death, and soon another generation was hooked.
"I have spent much of my life working to end the disease and death caused by tobacco," Koop continued. By this he meant that he has relentlessly nagged people to stop smoking and urged the government to make life difficult for those who disobey by raising their taxes and gradually eliminating the places where they're allowed to light up.
Koop accused Lott and his colleagues of committing "public health malpractice" by "ignoring the advice of every health professional in America." It's not surprising that a man who fancies himself "America's family doctor" would be appalled by such impertinence. But even if you believe that Koop really has polled "every health professional in America," down to the last dentist, chiropractor, and nurse-practitioner, you have to wonder why their opinions should be decisive.
Instead of following doctors' orders, Koop complained, Lott et al. "have chosen to listen only to a handful of television ads and a lot of PAC committees." In other words, the Republicans blindly obeyed the will of their paymasters in the tobacco industry, expressed in TV commercials condemning the McCain bill's enormous money grab.
Having described the offense, Koop pronounced the sentence: "I hope the Senators who derailed this bill today lose sleep every night listening to the sound of children taking their first puff and the sound of emphysema and cancer patients gasping for their last breath."
Frightening as his insomnia curse may be, Koop's apparent sincerity is even scarier. Unlike most of the Democrats who plan to use the tobacco issue against the Republicans this fall, Koop seems to believe his own rhetoric–a chilling thought, given some of the things he says. "From my point of view," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer a couple of years ago, "anything that stops smoking is good."
The anti-smoking movement is filled with like-minded true believers. They hold that "public health" trumps all other values, and they have trouble imagining that anyone might honestly disagree.
Thus, opponents of the McCain bill were said to be on the side of "Big Tobacco," helping condemn millions of teenagers to nicotine slavery and early death. If skeptics argued that raising cigarette taxes would unfairly penalize adults (more than 90 percent of smokers), that higher prices would contribute to black market activity, or that restrictions on tobacco advertising would violate the First Amendment, they were just repeating "the standard industry arguments."
In the end, the anti-smokers were defeated by their own arrogance. Because they refused to concede that there could be any legitimate opposition to their agenda, they resisted the compromises that would have been necessary to pass tobacco legislation. As Lott observed, "Their greed to get everything has left them with nothing."
Koop himself, in a moment of moderation last summer, warned his colleagues about this danger. Appearing on ABC's Nightline, he noted that many anti-smoking activists "want to see the culprit, the tobacco industry, flogged in public, and I understand how they feel….But flogging a company in public, if it does not produce something for the health of the American people, is a futile gesture."
Soon, however, Koop was insisting that the anti-smoking movement could achieve its goals without any cooperation from the tobacco companies. He urged Congress to "face the scourge of tobacco for what it is and legislate a tobacco policy that holds the industry accountable."
Together with former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, Koop demanded a higher levy on smokers and opposed limits on the industry's liability. He thereby helped alienate fiscal conservatives and the tobacco companies, whose opposition ultimately sank the bill. I was rooting for him all along.