Why aren't Republicans sounding smoke alarms?

September 01, 1995|By Elizabeth Whelan

REPUBLICANS AND TOBACCO, perfect together? So it seems. In a March 1995 letter to shareholders, Philip Morris chairman Geoffrey Bible captured the essence of this apparent alliance: "New faces and new leadership on Capitol Hill mean Phillip Morris . . . has tremendous opportunities."

Bible must have been assured that happy days were here again for the tobacco industry when conservative politicians, their spokesmen and right-wing journalists almost uniformly condemned President Bill Clinton's "war" against teen-age smoking.

For example, House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the Food and Drug Administration had "lost its mind" when it proposed legislation to regulate nicotine as a drug. Gingrich spokesman Tony Blankley calls anti-smokers "health Nazis." And columnist Tony Snow editorialized that anti-smoking campaigns represent "federal nannyism."

Conservative pundits pounce on anti-smoking activists with gusto, questioning not just our methods but our priorities. Gingrich declares that we should not pursue policies to discourage smoking because "we haven't won the far more serious fights about crack cocaine and heroin." Does this mean that because we have not won our war on drugs, which kill 3,000 Americans a year, we should not discourage the use of cigarettes, a legal product that kills 500,000 Americans a year?

Republicans, posturing themselves as friends of the tobacco industry, are doing themselves and America's youth a great disservice. As a public health professional and a lifelong Republican I ask: Why?

Smoking is a physically addictive, life-threatening habit taken up primarily in adolescence, often in childhood. Sounds like a habit conservatives would hate to defend and against which they would willingly campaign, as we would campaign against child pornography or violence-laden entertainment.

But anti-smoking efforts rarely involve conservatives. Discussions of tobacco and health policies are dominated almost exclusively by well-meaning social engineers and safety alarmists whose expansive agenda all but guarantees that many on the right reflexively gravitate to the opposite camp. In this way, liberal anti-smoking enthusiasts have poisoned the waters for the political right.

Yet just because some people cannot distinguish between serious and hypothetical risks hardly means that knowledgeable Republicans cannot muster the courage to speak out for health.

The Republican Party should seize the initiative and acknowledge publicly that cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and craft an anti-smoking agenda consistent with personal freedom and minimal government. Impossible? Not at all. Here's what congressional Republicans can do:

* Make tobacco companies play by the same liability rules as other industries. The way to do this is to remove the government-mandated warning label from cigarettes, which merely pre-empts the responsibility the industry would normally have for the consequences caused by their products.

* Disassociate themselves from the tobacco industry.

* Encourage state and local attempts to reduce cigarette sales to minors.

* Ensure that tobacco taxes cover smoking's medical and social costs.

* Appoint an impartial committee of scientists to review the effects of second-hand smoke. If this panel concludes that second-hand smoke contributes to illnesses, Republicans should support efforts to protect non-smokers.

Last month, a letter signed by me and 41 other Republican physicians and scientists was delivered to Gingrich, urging him to adopt this agenda. Unfortunately, the reaction of his spokesman Blankley, who suggested that our views were "misinformed" and constituted "intrusions into the private lives of others," suggests a blind spot in a leader who otherwise prides himself on his concern for America's next generation.

This is a time when conservatives are understandably eager to dismantle much of the government regulatory apparatus that most Americans agree is too large, too inefficient and too disdainful of the rights and choices of individuals.

Yet at the same time, we should recognize the duty of government to protect its citizens not only from physical violence but also from fraud, and especially to protect America's children. The quantifiable harm done to our children when they begin what often becomes a lifelong addiction should be viewed as a grave public danger.

Elizabeth Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health, a nonpartisan group of more than 250 physicians and scientists. She wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times.

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