Smoking, death and zealotry make a winning team "Ashes to Ashes": The fatal evidence is clear and the campaigning defeats itself.

THE ARGUMENT

April 21, 1996|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"I have observed over the years," Irving Kristol says, "that the unanticipated consequences of social action are always more important, and usually less agreeable, than the intended consequences." That goes double whenever the social action in question is fueled by zealotry. Zealots are like Wrong-Way Corrigan: No matter where they try to go, they always end up somewhere else.

Take cigarette smoking. Yes, social pressure from nonsmokers has doubtless caused some people to stop smoking. But as an important new book about smoking shows, the zealous efforts of anti-smoking crusaders to back the tobacco industry into a corner have so far turned out to be not just unsuccessful but counterproductive.

Richard Kluger's "Ashes to Ashes: America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris" (Knopf, 832 pages. $35.) is both mind-bogglingly thorough and refreshingly undoctrinaire. Kluger clearly disapproves of smoking; he just as clearly understands why people do it (I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that he either is or was a smoker). Similarly, his account of how the tobacco industry has sought to conceal its detailed knowledge of the dangers of smoking is at once forthright and balanced.

Kluger's evenhanded tone is more than a little bit surprising, since opposition to smoking has lately hardened into an ideology. Ideologues are notorious for treating those who dare to disagree with them as devils in human form, and professional anti-smokers are no exception. Most books about smoking say, or at the very least imply, the same four things: (1) Don't. (2) If you do, stop. (3) If you don't stop, you're a cowardly, inconsiderate creep who deserves to die a painful death of lung cancer. (4) If you work for the tobacco industry, you're a mass murderer who deserves to be shot at sunrise after having your liver torn by vultures for a month.

This, broadly speaking, is the thinking behind the no-compromise approach adopted by anti-smoking advocates ever since the publication by the surgeon general in 1964 of "Smoking and Health." Has it worked? Consider the following:

* Starting in the '80s, smokers began suing tobacco companies, seeking to persuade judges and juries to hold the companies liable for the damaging effects of smoking on their health - even though those effects had long been widely known to smokers. These suits, Kluger explains, were no joke: "Defense counsel, mindful that a single verdict against it could stir an avalanche of litigation that might bury the tobacco industry as it had the

asbestos companies, were prepared to go to almost any length not to lose."

The result? The tobacco industry, unwilling to do anything that might increase its liability risk, adopted a policy of complete non-cooperation. From the '80s on, Kluger says, cigarette companies chose "to try to scare off or exhaust claimants long before their cases ever reached a jury, and to assist them they had a veritable standby army of scientific and medical experts as well as investigators not above using brutally aggressive means to uncover almost every aspect of a plaintiff's life, from dietary habits to degree of marital bliss."

In this ultra-hostile environment, the possibility of mutual attempts by government and the tobacco industry to reach an accommodation that (in Kluger's words) "might relieve the severest effects of a deadly product that, practically speaking, cannot be outlawed" has dried up completely.

* As early as the '50s, it was widely believed by medical researchers that there was a link between smoking and cancer and heart disease. The tobacco industry, realizing this, developed modern filtered cigarettes and, Kluger points out, began marketing them to health-conscious smokers "at the first real show of government concern and outcry in the print media."

Deflecting hostility

By the '60s, cigarette makers had launched research-and-development programs aimed at creating truly "safer" cigarettes. But the legal climate had changed. Merely to explore the possibility that cigarettes could be made safer would have given invaluable ammunition to hostile judges and juries looking for ways to hold the industry legally liable for the effects of its product.

"We don't know of anything that makes a cigarette unsafe," one industry spokesman said in 1985, "so how could we be working toward a safer cigarette?" That sentence contained two lies: R.J. Reynolds, the company for which the spokesman worked, was then working on a smokeless cigarette. But given the take-no-prisoners mentality of anti-smoking litigators, what else could he have said?

Moreover, as one Philip Morris researcher later confessed, "I was a little bit naive in thinking that our critics would really like us to find a more acceptable product." It quickly became clear that the anti-smoking lobby wanted to ban smoking altogether, not make it safer.

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