Tobacco pushers purchase a $206 billion license to kill

November 24, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ONE OF these days, somebody will explain why we send drug dealers off to prison and let cigarette hustlers settle for a mere - Yes! Mere! - $206 billion settlement after peddling their own brands of addiction.

Because last week, as the state of Maryland was getting in line with the rest of the country to let the tobacco industry off the hook, I stood outside a Westminster restaurant with a friend, who needed a couple of quick puffs before heading to the smoke-free area inside.

"Oh, you're beautiful," I said, not without sarcasm.

"Just a couple of puffs," he muttered. "To get me through dessert."

We've had this conversation before. Fifteen years ago, the doctors told him he had to quit smoking because of a newly discovered blood disease. I was standing there when they told him this. It wasn't a request, it was an order.

It turned out to mean nothing. The doctors were telling him one thing, but his body said another: Gimme more. He'd quit for a while, a day here, a week there, full of big plans. And then he'd cave in.

A few years ago, the doctors had more bad news: Along with the blood disease, he now had a bone disease. The cigarettes, they told him again. They have to go.

Instead, the doctors went. The cigarettes stayed, because they insisted on staying. But the old doctors had to go because he needed more specialists now. The blood was worse, and the bones were worse, and now his spleen was enlarged like crazy, so he had to give up working for a living in his weakened condition.

But he couldn't give up the cigarettes. Paychecks of any sort went away, but not the addiction. Money for food was scarce, but money for cigarettes would always be found. He finally gave up all pretense at trying to quit. Final pleasures, he said. Can't deny this last little pleasure to a body learning to live without so many others.

And in Westminster last week, standing outside this smoke-free restaurant while he filled his lungs with this remaining pleasure of his, I mentioned the big deal struck last week between 46 states - Maryland included - and the big tobacco companies.

"I saw it," he said, inhaling without appreciation.

The deal does not please everyone, but it enriches the states by remarkable billions of dollars: $206 billion all told, including $4.2 billion coming to Maryland over the next 25 years.

For the tobacco companies, it's an implicit confession: Yes, they are finally saying, we admit we poison all that we touch. We admit to cancer, and we admit to heart disease and such, and if it will take money to get you off our backs, here's all the money you can imagine.

In return, all the states had to do was agree to get their lawyers off the tobacco companies' backs and stop trying to peek at secret documents relating to what tobacco executives knew, and when they knew it, regarding the true powers of cigarettes to poison and to permanently ensnare.

No more lawsuits, and no more snooping, and they'll hand over all this money - which, naturally, the states can now use to help support all those cancer and heart patients breathing their last in various hospitals, and all those patients yet to come.

"Yeah, I saw that deal," my friend says. He's been upset for months about the cigarettes, dating back to the last session of the Maryland General Assembly. Back then, the talk was new cigarette taxes: $1.50 a pack, designed to dissuade kids from taking up the habit. Many think the new tax will pass in the next legislative session.

"Where am I gonna get another $1.50 a pack?" my friend says now.

He means it literally. Unable to work, subsisting on the merest government help, he's given up trying to beat the addiction. Pack a day, maybe two. They've got him by the wallet, and by the nicotine. And it can only get worse now.

"You think that's a lot of money?" I ask.

"The $1.50?" he says.

"No, the billions," I say.

"For the cigarette companies?" he says. "Nah, they have billions more."

It hasn't dawned on him yet. The tobacco people don't care about these billions, because it won't even be their money. They'll just turn to their junkies. A price increase here, another there, millions of smokers adding up to billions of dollars, and the whole thing's paid off.

And we're all back where we started: with the states like Maryland spending crushing millions a year supporting those dying in hospitals; with new generations of cigarette junkies coming up behind them; and with the relieved tobacco pushers, no longer worried about lawsuits, or eyes peering into their files, or anyone finding out the lying committed to cover up decades of ritual poisoning.

Pub Date: 11/24/98

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