Tobacco, drug dealers belong together

March 23, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This morning the scuzziest crack dealer on North Caroline Street wakes up and calls himself an idiot. All these years, he should have reached for a lobbyist instead of a lawyer. And every heroin trafficker at the Maryland Penitentiary and every seller of marijuana marking time at the House of Correction peers around his prison bars and tells himself, Political payoffs, you moron! That's where you went wrong!

Last Thursday afternoon, in Washington, the Liggett Group Inc., makers of Chesterfields, dodging 22 state lawsuits (including Maryland's) that were landing like flak, admitted flatly that cigarettes are addictive. Thus, we remove the final distinction between the selling of such products as heroin and cocaine, which are illegal and send people to prison, and the product called cigarettes, which are legal and send people to their death.

A quarter-century ago, with the various medical and scientific studies showing the clearest links between tobacco and such killers as cancer and heart disease, the cigarette companies were forced into running disclaimers warning people: Proceed at your own risk, because our product tends to murder you quite insidiously.

Why would such a product continue to be sold legally and advertised openly? Because this is America. Because, in America, we have the grandest of debates currently being held in Washington about the evils of political campaign financing and the horrors of people sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom, but nobody at the moment mentions the campaign financing done specifically by the tobacco companies which helps to keep them operating in the open market while human beings continue to die from cigarettes.

Why does this happen? Because, in America, what's legal and what's not is sometimes simply a question of the highest bidding. Remember Bob Dole in the last presidential campaign? Was there a more pathetic and hypocritical figure than Dole, having sold his soul to the tobacco interests, trying to hedge on cigarettes' link to cancer?

And yet cigarettes are still sold quite legally, and other narcotics are not. Why? Well, who's lobbying for the heroin dealers? Nobody. Who among the crack dealers has openly slipped money to a presidential candidate? Nobody. Thus, these jerks keep going to jail while the cigarette folks, though ducking lawsuits, though never getting invited to the holy Lincoln bedroom, continue to make a fortune.

Why? Because, in America, we have freedom of choice - if we pay for it. The tobacco companies gave us freedom of choice by doing two things. First, when the scientific link was made clear between smoking and disease, they waved the flag. This is America, they said. If people want to smoke, let them smoke. If they don't want to smoke, they don't have to smoke. It's their choice.

Since they had bought off most of the votes in Washington, such talk gave everybody in power an out. Go ahead, the politicians said, peddle your poison. After all, freedom of choice is good (as long as you're paying for it).

And the second thing the tobacco folks did was simply to tell us lies. OK, they implicitly conceded with those warning labels, there may be this little trouble with various diseases. But they kept denying cigarettes were physically addictive, which is the key factor in their freedom-of-choice defense. Because, if you're hooked, then where's the choice? Where's the freedom? The addiction's taken them away.

Thus, last week, everything changed. The Liggett Group, looking to settle these 22 state lawsuits, agreed to hand over $25 million (big deal) plus 25 percent of its pretax profits over the next 25 years (a bigger deal), and released a statement that smoking causes health problems, that nicotine is addictive, and that the tobacco industry specifically tries to seduce teen-agers.

And that's not all. The company's also turning over thousands of pages of documents detailing 30 years of private discussions among industry executives and lawyers that supposedly prove everything that Liggett - the smallest of the industry's top five companies - finally admitted last week.

The response of the rest of the industry? The other companies are fighting like mad to keep the documents from being turned in, because it could bury all of them.

Got it? Liggett's admitting cigarettes are addictive. Liggett officials are admitting that they kill. And they've got documents showing the rest of the industry knows it, too, and has been hiding it, while reaching out to lure kids as heartlessly as any crack dealer lurking outside a schoolyard.

Which leaves us with a problem: If tobacco's been sold legally all this time only because the industry lied to us, and if it's now admittedly addictive, and now admittedly a killer, why are we talking about civil lawsuits?

Why aren't we talking about prosecuting criminal cases against these tobacco officials, who are no better than the meanest illegal drug dealers, whose only difference is that they stupidly failed to bribe enough politicians, and whose prison cells they ought now to be sharing?

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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