The custom that thrives, and also kills

March 21, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- In the escalating war against smoking a habit that has taken many more lives than all of America's wars combined -- some states are seeking compensation from tobacco companies for medical expenses for smoking-related injuries.

Prosecutors are contemplating perjury and conspiracy charges against tobacco executives who testified to disbelief in the obvious: the addictive nature of nicotine.

In this war, ironies and paradoxes abound.

Social costs, fiscal benefits

Smokers shiver outside their workplaces, pariahs in a country whose Father was a tobacco farmer.

Probably the most powerful disincentive for smoking peer pressure is also the most powerful incentive for people to start smoking. Most smokers start before age 18 because of peer pressure in the search for status and glamour. However, smoking now seems dumb and declasse.

Cigarettes are the world's most heavily taxed consumer product. U.S. state taxes range up to Washington's 81.5 cents a pack, and in 20 industrialized nations cigarette taxes sometimes are five times higher. The ideal revenue yield from such taxes would be zero.

By some calculations, the social costs of smoking (in health care, lost productivity from illness and shortened lives and fire damage) about equal the sum produced by cigarette taxes plus the savings that smoking produces in the form of reduced spending for Social Security, pensions and nursing home care for smokers.

If every smoker quit today, that would be a crisis for Social Security and all pension plans that incorporate actuarial assumptions about millions of smokers dying before they can receive benefits.

Harmful, as intended

Cigarettes generate interesting product liability litigation because cigarettes are harmful when used as intended. The fact that cigarettes are harmful has been broadly understood for several generations and today is almost universally acknowledged.

The consensus about this, combined with the warning labels on cigarette packs and advertising, has helped immunize tobacco companies against liability for damage their products do. Juries have spurned plaintiffs who have said they deserve recompense from tobacco companies because "everyone knows" smoking is harmful.

Government subsidizes tobacco farming and the treatment of illnesses tobacco causes. Government pays for these things from a Treasury diminished by revenues lost because of productivity lost as a result of 1,160 smoking-related deaths a day.

Think of three jumbo jet crashes, 365 days a year. Or think of three smoking-related deaths in the time it takes to read this column. Yet the cigarette war is a substantial government success.

In the mid-1950s half the nation's adults smoked. Today one quarter smoke. Regarding tobacco, more people are behaving reasonably, largely because of government's most cost-effective activity, the dissemination of public health information.

Is there in all of government in the last three decades a life-enhancing success comparable to the stigmatizing of smoking since the 1964 surgeon general's report affirmed a causal connection between smoking and cancer?

In Ashes to Ashes, Richard Kluger's history of America's tobacco industry to be published next month, he writes that there has long been an intuitive, common-sense consensus that filling one's lungs with smoke is unhealthy. So why do a quarter of Americans over 18 smoke, and smoke heavily 25 cigarettes a day on average?

A cheap high

Smoking, says Kluger, is a highly sensual experience costing about a penny a minute. No wonder it is the century's preferred pacifier, "the truest, cheapest, most accessible opiate of the masses" as they cope with "the careening velocity of life."

Yes, smoking kills, but, says Kluger, the smoker's catechism is: Smoking hastens the death of only one in three smokers, so the odds are on the particular smoker's side; you must die of something, so the something might as well be a pleasure; smoking takes years off the end of life, which is not quality time; life is risky, so seize pleasure whenever possible.

Recently the Liggett Group Inc., which has less than 3 percent of America's cigarette market, agreed, under the pressure of a class action suit from smokers, to accept various government regulations and fund some programs to help smokers kick the habit. A small advance in the war.

It is a war with a long past that suggests a long future.

A Russian czar used torture, Siberian exile and executions to discourage smoking. A Mogul emperor of Hindustan had smokers' lips split. A Turkish sultan, convinced that careless smoking caused a conflagration in Constantinople, made an example of some smokers by having pipes driven through their noses, sometimes just before, sometimes just after beheading them.

"And yet," writes Kluger, "the custom thrived."

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/21/96

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