The danger stage

June 01, 1994|By Russell Baker

IN THE first place everybody has always known that smoking is unhealthy and addictive. I already knew it could kill you when I took my first drag under the bandstand at a Sunday-school picnic in or about the year 1933.

Even then the lethal danger was so widely known that American youth in the 8-to-10-year-old bloc I inhabited referred to cigarettes as "coffin nails."

It was widely stated and generally believed that cigarettes would kill you and also "stunt your growth" once you were "hooked" on them.

For the young, who know they can never die, death was not worrisome. Stunted growth, however, was a grave threat to boys yearning to be 6 feet tall, an awesome height in that era before athletes went gargantuan. Those kids knew cigarettes could "hook" them on a stunting habit.

"Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette," a popular music hit of 1945, celebrated both the deadliness of the habit -- "until you smoke yourself to death," the song commanded -- and its addictive nature. In one verse, having smoked himself to death, the candidate for heaven tells St. Peter to wait because he simply has to have another cigarette.

I recite this tedious history because, tedious though it be to you and me, it is apparently unknown to the parties engaged in the farcical doings between Congress and the cigarette industry.

Astonishing though it seems, a congressional committee is in such doubt about tobacco's addictive properties that it recently had tobacco executives in for a grilling. Equally amazing, the grilled witnesses insisted their goods were not addictive.

We keep hearing that the nation will die of a profound ignorance of history, but I hadn't believed it until confronted by this asinine spectacle of statesmen and corporate giants disputing something every 10-year-old once knew with certainty and was celebrated 50 years ago in every juke box in America.

What we have here is a crusade in its second phase. Crusades typically start by being admirable, proceed to being foolish and end by being dangerous. The crusade against smoking is now clearly well into the second stage where foolishness abounds.

There is now talk in Washington about a smoke-free America with new laws enforcing prohibitions to save the country from smoke's deadly reach. Doubtless there are smoke-haters eager to hear steel doors clang on incorrigible smokers, for this is a real crusade, make no mistake, and the true crusader doesn't stop at burning the village, killing the women and children and making off with the cattle if that's what it takes to purify the world.

The crusade against drugs has already filled prison cells with harmless people serving ridiculously long mandatory sentences at immense expense to the public. A smoke-prohibition crusade would push us into realms of public-policy silliness even more absurd.

What accounts for the present zealotry of the anti-smoke crusade, which began for such good purpose? Part of it may be explained by the natural urge of the high-minded to rescue the rest of suffering and ignorant humanity from ignorance, squalor, godlessness and evil habits.

The missionary impulse of people blessed with higher wisdom can be a terrifying force, but why has it focused all this fury on tobacco rather than the many other things that are killing us?

Automobiles, guns, food of almost every variety -- all are killing us, just as surely as cigarettes, but for every crusader against each there is a stalwart defender to moderate the attack.

(Alcohol, of course, is not available. Crusaders did alcohol. Disaster! It gave crime a shot in the arm.)

Now something very sinister is developing. Some businesses are refusing to hire workers who smoke outside the workplace, on ground that smokers' health problems are bad for their employers.

This is an illustration of a crusade entering its dangerous stage. Give employers the right to control the habits of their workers outside the workplace, and you set the stage for a tyranny even worse than the evils of too much government which keep conservatives so alarmed.

It would be proper for conservatives to get concerned about the anti-smoking crusade. What it attacks, after all, is precisely what conservatives ought to care about: the right of those who are disapproved of by the high-minded to be left alone.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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