Obama's Not-So-Secret Shame


Yesterday, as President Obama signed a bill that authorizes the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products, it became clear that he still smokes cigarettes occasionally:

Mr. Obama noted that 90 percent of smokers began on or before their 18th birthday.

"I know; I was one of those teenagers," he said, standing beneath a punishing afternoon sun at a Rose Garden ceremony. "I know how difficult it can be to break this habit when it's been with you for a long time."…

There are few touchier questions inside the White House than whether Mr. Obama is still smoking. One senior administration official declined to answer, but pointed out that the president spoke Monday in the present tense, saying, "I know how difficult it can be to break this habit," as opposed to "I know how difficult it was to break this habit."…

When asked directly if Mr. Obama was still smoking, Robert Gibbs, the president's press secretary, replied: "He struggles with it every day. I don't honestly see the need to get a whole lot more specific than the fact that it's a continuing struggle."

I suppose you could count this as one more broken campaign promise, although giving up cigarettes is a pledge Obama made to his wife rather than voters. By itself, the fact that Obama smokes now and then does not bother me, but this "continuing struggle" business is getting old. Why not just admit that he's an occasional smoker? Presumably because it would set a bad example for the kids and undermine the orthodox view of nicotine addiction, according to which occasional smoking can be a stage on the way to full-blown, pack-a-day addiction or complete abstinence but never a stable pattern. Data on tobacco use, especially for cigars and pipes but increasingly for cigarettes as well, show this conventional view is wrong: It's quite common for people to consume tobacco on a less-than-daily basis.

Obama's cigarette habit is not necessarily inconsistent with his tobacco policy views, especially if we accept his self-portrayal as a victim of Big Tobacco who was trapped in the habit before he was old enough to know better. But it does raise some fairness issues. For instance, Obama prefers Marlboro Reds, which is not one of the cigarette varieties banned by the new law. (If it had been, you can be sure Philip Morris would not have supported the bill.) Isn't it unseemly for the president to support the prohibition of other smokers' favorites, especially when the contraband list (all flavors except tobacco and menthol) is so arbitrary (and maybe even racist)?

Obama's first tax hike (which violated his promise not to raise taxes on people of modest means) raised the federal levy on cigarettes from 39 cents to $1 a pack. He is paying the tax too, of course, but he's a light smoker and a wealthy man; the tax falls much more heavily on regular smokers, who are disproportionately poor and, according to the White House, engaged in a "continuing struggle" with an addiction that even the leader of the free world is not powerful enough to break. How is it fair to punish them even more, especially when they are already saving taxpayers money by kicking off early?