Curing the smoking habit

October 17, 1999|By Tom Clancy

I STARTED smoking in the summer of 1964. I played some mindless game on the boardwalk of Wildwood, N.J., tossing a volleyball onto a collection of muffin tins, and the ball landed on a colored one, and I won a pack of cigarettes.

So began a habit that, in the 1960s, was merely a rite of passage into adulthood. I am now in the process of quitting the habit. I say "in the process" because it's turned out to be a rather difficult enterprise, and while I expect to succeed eventually, it's decidedly not much fun. Now I fervently wish that in 1964 on the New Jersey coast I'd played miniature golf that night instead.

In attempting to quit, I am transitioning from a sinful to a virtuous man, at least by current standards. You see, in 1964 smoking was normal. Commercial airliners didn't yet have separate smoking and nonsmoking sections. Athletes smoked and advertised smoking products. Cigarette companies advertised on TV. And while the surgeon general had just determined that "smoking may be hazardous to your health," as the packs told us, the habit was too ingrained in America for the warning to be taken too seriously.

Well, times have changed, and with it government policy. The federal government has announced that it will bring suit against "big tobacco" for selling products that the surgeon general is now certain are harmful to us.

Nicotine is an alkaloid poison in the same chemical family with cocaine and is expressed by the plant as a natural insect repellent, to keep bugs from eating up the leaves. The poisonous nature of tobacco was first recognized as early as the 1930s, and to this day the carcinogenic chemicals (there are hundreds of chemicals in a tobacco leaf) have yet to be firmly identified.

Tobacco is grown by farmers throughout the American Southeast, and those farmers have for years been subsidized by the same federal government that is suing the companies that purchase the leaves from the farmers.

The logic here is difficult to fathom. The government thinks the people who process and sell the leaves are more to blame for the public health effects of smoking than those who nurture the leaves into being, but maybe there's a subtlety here that escapes me. (The government takes a different view toward South American farmers who nurture nicotine's cousin, cocaine.)

Those who process and sell the tobacco commercially are, therefore, evil people. We saw the executives of the companies pilloried before Congress a few years ago. But why go after mere citizens when the government could go after their companies. Why? For the money, of course.

What else does the government want? Justice? Be serious. This thought first came from the mind of some lawyer employed by a state government who thought aloud, Gee, if tobacco shortens life, and if that causes public-health costs to the states, are not the states entitled to recover that money under tort law?

After all, big tobacco has lots of money, and money in nongovernment hands is always a target of those in government. Here was a chance to charge a tax without passing one through a legislature, and get huge sums of money into their coffers. And so, they organized and approached the tobacco companies.

Big tobacco has corporate counsels who looked at this one and worried. They had the choice of settling for a lot of money or of fighting it out in many states, one at a time, against government-employed lawyers, with numerous separate juries and separate outcomes. They chose the former path.

It's like this. How much do you suppose it costs to produce a pack of cigarettes? Probably less than 50 cents. But where I live they cost more than $2.50 per pack. The rest is from tax. Called "sin tax," it's one of the most popular that a state levies, since it punishes citizens for having fun that may be bad for them. The same is true of drinking alcohol or driving a car that gets poor gas mileage.

The government, which always knows best, of course, encourages us to make the "correct" choice by punishing other choices. And so the cigarette companies already act as the auxiliary tax arm of the federal and state governments.

By making a settlement that forces them to jack up their prices somewhat, they become an even wider conduit of money from the smoker (who is a citizen, too, though not an important one) to the government.

Now, a final consideration. The federal and state governments claim to detest tobacco products for the bad things they do to people. The government shows us its distaste for these evil products and their evil purveyors by saying all manner of evil things about them. By discouraging their use at every opportunity.

But Congress and the states show their real feeling and real distaste for those deadly products not by outlawing their manufacture, import and sale and thus offering real governmental protection to those who lack the wit to look after themselves, but by increasing the cost of the habit and transferring the money to whatever pet projects they might have.

And all the while, they proclaim that they are punishing "big tobacco," while in fact they continue subsidies to tobacco farmers and only force the users of the deadly products to pay more for their self-destructive habit.

For those who wonder if the government really gives a damn about you, here is a test case for posing the question. If you're a smoker, that is.

Marylander Tom Clancy, a best-selling novelist, wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times.

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