Tobacco's smoke screen

October 24, 1999|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder/Tribune

THERE IS BIG news in the War on Smoking. The U.S. Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against the cigarette industry, boldly charging that the industry was lying -- and knew it was lying -- when it claimed that it never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.

Whoops! Wrong lie! The Justice Department is charging that for many years the tobacco industry, on purpose, did not tell people that cigarettes were bad for them. To mention just one blatant example, on numerous documented occasions during the 1950s and 1960s, R.J. Reynolds deliberately failed to run an advertising campaign using the slogan: "Winston Tastes Good, and Gives You Lung Cancer!"

As a result of this type of clever deception, the Justice Department contends, smokers did not realize that cigarettes were hazardous. This is undoubtedly true of a certain type of smoker; namely, the type of smoker whose brain has been removed with a melon scoop. Everybody else has known for decades that cigarettes are unhealthy. I have known many smokers, and I have never heard one say: "You know why I stick these unnatural wads of chemically processed tobacco into my mouth, set them on fire and suck hot gases deep into my lungs? Because I sincerely believe it poses no health risk!"

When I first experimented with cigarettes, as a young teen-ager in the early Sixties, I knew they were unhealthy, because my dad, a heavy smoker, warned me of the dangers. "Son," he told me many times, "Hack hack hack haarrwwwggghhhhkk (spit)." But I tried cigarettes anyway, because, like all teen-agers, I expected to live a minimum of 50,000 years, and I figured it was no big deal if I knocked a few centuries off the end. I thought that smoking would make me look older and more attractive to women -- that I'd fire up an unfiltered Camel and, boom, I'd sprout muscles and vast quantities of body hair. Unfortunately, this did not happen, although I did manage, through persistence and hard work, to develop a cigarette habit that enabled me to spend the next 15 years smelling like a low-grade dump fire.

Eventually, I realized I had to kick my habit. This was before the development of nicotine patches, so I had to devise some other way get my nicotine fix while I was quitting. The method I came up with was: cheating. So I continued to smoke cigarettes for several years after I quit. Then I finally got desperate and really did quit, using the cold turkey method, which gets its name from the fact that it is no more difficult than inserting a frozen 20-pound Butterball completely into your left nostril.

My point is that, when I smoked, I knew it was unhealthy, and so did every smoker I ever knew. Nevertheless, the Justice Department believes that we smokers were victimized by the tobacco industry, so, on behalf of the federal government, it has filed a huge lawsuit against the federal government for spending gazillions of taxpayer dollars to support the tobacco industry.

Whoops! Wrong again! In fact, the Justice Department is suing the tobacco industry for $20 billion. Needless to say, the tobacco industry would obtain this money by selling more cigarettes. In fact, the sale of cigarettes is the financial heart and soul of the War on Smoking. Cigarette companies are already selling cigarettes like crazy to pay for the $206 billion anti-tobacco settlement won by the states, which are distributing the money as follows: (1) Legal fees; (2) Money for attorneys; (3) A whole bunch of new programs that have absolutely nothing to do with helping smokers stop smoking; and (4) Payments to law firms.

The only danger I see looming ahead is that the tobacco industry will get tired of serving as the bag person for the anti-smoking effort and actually quit selling cigarettes. In that case, the only way to keep the anti-tobacco money flowing in would be for the various governments to join forces with the legal community and sell cigarettes directly to the public out of post offices. This would be similar to the way we've tackled the gambling problem in this country, which is to have the states run massive lottery operations. It makes perfect sense to me! Of course, I have a turkey up my nose.

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