'Uniquely perilous'

Anna Quindlen

April 15, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

LIFE OVER the course of the last half-century has bee confusing for those people who manufacture and sell cigarettes. Their product went from being an accepted part of daily life to a suspected carcinogen to the most reviled legal substance in America.

But now their position should be quite clear. Tobacco companies fall into a separate and distinct category of business because they produce and market a product that has no redeeming value and that causes serious illness and death.

Five years ago, when the American Bar Association considered -- and rejected -- a proposal that it endorse a ban on all tobacco advertising, one member described cigarettes as "uniquely perilous." Our national policies should reflect that: not just our health policies, but our fiscal policies as well.

One of the most interesting of these is the plan to cut or entirely eliminate the tax deductions tobacco companies receive for the cost of their advertising. Sen. Tom Harkin, who wants to cut the deductions and use the revenues for both deficit reduction and counter-advertising, says that taxpayers are unaware that such deductions even exist. But the fact is that cigarette companies spend billions of dollars each year to advertise and promote their products, and take a huge deduction for those costs.

Tobacco company executives insist they use advertising only to get smokers to switch from one brand to another and not to snag new, younger consumers to replace those who have died untimely deaths. Of course, these are the same people who not so long ago wanted you to believe that there was no link between lung disease and smoking. Veracity is not their brand name.

But they are savvy, and in the debate about tobacco advertising they push a genuine American hot button, that of free speech. The tobacco companies even have the American Civil Liberties Union on their side. (It should be noted that the ACLU has accepted contributions from cigarette manufacturers, which the organization insists has no bearing on this issue.)

Ira Glasser, the ACLU's executive director, says it's simply wrong to provide business deductions for some businesses but to exempt others because you do not like the product. "You can't pick and choose," he says. "You can't make a distinction based on what is produced."

Sure you can. Government is in the business of making distinctions, between the income taxes paid by those who earn $30,000 a year and those who earn $300,000, between how a company can dispose of garbage and how it can dispose of toxic wastes.

By instituting so-called sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco, it surely makes a distinction between products it considers dangerous luxuries and all others.

So many of our anti-smoking efforts have focused on the individual consumers, proposing taxes on their single packs while the companies grow ever richer. Restaurant sections, smoke-free offices, sin taxes -- they've all focused on the little guy.

Sure, smokers have made personal choices. And they pay for those choices every day, whether sitting through an airline flight dying for a smoke, or dying for a smoke in the oncology wing of a hospital.

The tobacco companies have not paid nearly enough for the killing, and that is because we have too often treated them like everyone else. Their product is "uniquely perilous" and should be given unique stature -- or lack of same.

Anna Quindlen is a New York Times columnist.

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