I'm no fan of cigarettes, but those hearings were farcical

April 20, 1994|By Mona Charen

I AM no admirer of cigarette companies. They produce a product that is poisonous, and they peddle it in such a way as to make it glamorous. For years, they cheerfully accepted government subsidies. They are neither exemplary businessmen nor good capitalists.

Still, last week's congressional hearing featuring the executives of the seven largest cigarette companies during last week's hearings before the a farce.

Reps. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and John Bryant, D-Texas, of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment taunted, interrupted and derided the tobacco makers, asking repeatedly whether cigarettes cause cancer, emphysema and heart disease. The executives responded that they couldn't say for sure.

In a sense, they have a point. No one can say for sure why a particular person comes down with lung cancer and another doesn't. Some people smoke two packs a day for 50 years and die of old age. But there are limitations to that kind of sophistry on the part of cigarette makers. What science has demonstrated conclusively is that there is a strong correlation between smoking and disease, making it safe to say that smoking is a risky behavior.

What exactly did the congressmen expect the tobacco executives to say? Everyone who has not been on Mars for the past 25 years knows that smoking increases the risk of contracting cancer and other diseases. The defensive stance of the tobacco industry is to hug agnosticism as close as they can this side of absurdity.

Tobacco companies look silly trying to deny the danger of cigarettes, but theirs is not the only product on the market that can cause harm. Alcohol, when used to excess, can, too. So can eggs and hollandaise sauce.

But millions of people, knowing the risks, choose to smoke anyway. The congressmen know that. They also know that they dare not ban cigarettes for fear of igniting either a revolution or a crime wave equal to or greater than that which accompanied Prohibition. (Imagine "smoke-easies.")

Members of Congress have no intention of banning cigarettes. Nor do they endorse something useful, like the humorous British commercials urging smokers to empty their ashtrays into a large jar, fill it with water, and take a big sniff!

No, the self-righteous Democrats of the health subcommittee will do nothing to offend those of their constituents who smoke. The beauty of last week's hearing is that it permitted Representatives Waxman, Wyden and the rest of them to invent villains -- evil tobacco executives -- and excoriate them for imaginary crimes.

Imaginary? Yes. The most telling moment of the hearings came when one of the congressmen asked the executives if cigarettes are addicting. "No," replied each of them in turn. This exchange made the evening news -- presented in the light the politicians wanted. The executives were portrayed as outrageously disingenuous. Addiction "experts" were quoted contradicting the tobacco companies.

But we make entirely too much of the concept of addiction. Addiction is a physical process involving tolerance and certain symptoms upon withdrawal of the substance. All habits are hard to break. Addiction makes them harder to break. But it does not -- as so many seem to assume -- make habits impossible to break.

Even heroin addicts are known voluntarily to go through withdrawal when the price of their drug rises so that they can continue to get high on less.

"Millions of people want to quit smoking but can't," said one addiction expert on a morning show.

Well, that is a philosophical not a medical question. I quit smoking, after five years of a pack a day. It wasn't easy. Neither is losing weight. But it is eminently possible. Free will lives.

It makes better theater to pretend that evil tobacco companies are spiking their product with nicotine to keep people helplessly lighting up. The more mundane truth is that people are well-informed about the dangers of smoking and fully capable of stopping. But they smoke anyway. It's almost as difficult to understand as why people vote for the likes of Mr. Wyden and Mr. Waxman.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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