Blowing Smoke

April 16, 1994

Good thing no one asked those tobacco executives whether they think the world is round or flat. After testifying they don't believe nicotine is addictive and that they have doubts cigarettes cause fatal illnesses like lung cancer, there's no telling what they would have replied.

The chief executives of the leading U.S. tobacco companies also denied to a congressional subcommittee that they manipulate nicotine levels in cigarettes to keep smokers hooked. Maybe they don't -- the evidence is inconclusive. But given the credibility problems the tobacco industry creates for itself, it is playing to a skeptical public.

Even in the face of overwhelming evidence from leaders of the medical profession, the tobacco industry continues to deny the undeniable. Doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, drug abuse experts, several U.S. surgeons general and the World Health Organization all proclaim nicotine addictive.

So, if further evidence is really necessary, do the tens of millions of U.S. cigarette smokers who have agonized through withdrawal, some successfully, others not. Scientists on the payrolls of the tobacco companies try to narrow the definition of addiction to the point where they -- or more likely their bosses' lawyers -- can say it doesn't apply to nicotine. But they flout reality.

Then comes the grudging admission from one executive of a major producer that cigarette smoke "may" cause fatal ailments like lung or bladder cancer, heart disease and emphysema. Another executive continues to deny the link with cancer. Why? Because it's based on "statistical data," which somehow he finds less than convincing. Epidemiological studies are one of the most effective tools in public health, but they don't count for much in the tobacco belt.

The beleaguered tobacco industry is now falling back on the argument that U.S. health authorities and many in Congress who are trying to regulate tobacco really want to prohibit its use totally. If that argument sounds familiar, it's the last refuge of the gun peddlers as well. Prohibition of tobacco is not politically feasible; it would be no more effective than prohibition of alcoholic beverages. But smoking is dangerous, to those who do it and those who are exposed to it involuntarily. Additional regulation is justified and inevitable.

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