In the war on tobacco, money goes up in smoke

September 15, 2002|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder / Tribune

IN THESE TROUBLED times, it's nice to know that there is one thing that can always bring a smile to our faces, and maybe even cause us to laugh so hard that we cry.

I am referring, of course, to the War On Tobacco. Rarely in the annals of government -- and I do not mean to suggest anything juvenile by the phrase "annals of government" -- will you find a program so consistently hilarious as the campaign against the Evil Weed.

Before we get to the latest wacky hijinks, let's review how the War On Tobacco works. The underlying principle, of course, is: Tobacco Is Bad. It kills many people, and it causes many others to smell like ashtrays in a poorly cleaned bus station.

So a while ago, politicians from a bunch of states were scratching their heads, trying to figure out what to do about the tobacco problem. One option, of course, was to say: "Hey, if people want to be stupid, it's none of our business." But of course that was out of the question. Politicians believe everything is their business, which is why -- to pick one of many examples -- most states have elaborate regulations governing who may, and who may not, give manicures.

Another option was to simply make selling cigarettes illegal, just like other evil activities, such as selling heroin, or giving unlicensed manicures, or operating lotteries (except, of course, for lotteries operated by states). But the politicians immediately saw a major flaw with this approach: It did not provide any way for money to be funneled to politicians.

And so they went with option three, which was to file lawsuits against the tobacco companies. The underlying moral principle of these lawsuits was: "You are knowingly selling a product that kills tens of thousands of our citizens each year. We want a piece of that action!"

The anti-tobacco lawsuits resulted in a humongous jackpot settlement under which the tobacco industry is paying hundreds of billions of dollars to 46 states (and of course their lawyers). The tobacco companies are raising this money by mowing lawns.

Ha ha! Seriously, they are raising the money by selling cigarettes as fast as they can. So everybody wins in the War On Tobacco:

* The smokers get to keep smoking tobacco.

* The tobacco companies get to keep selling tobacco.

* The politicians (and of course their lawyers) get a big old ton of money, as physical proof of how much they are opposed to tobacco.

Originally, the states claimed that they would use the tobacco-lawsuit money to ... well, to do something about tobacco. But that of course makes no economic sense: To actually stop smokers from smoking would be to kill the goose that is coughing up the golden loogies.

So the states, according to the Government Accounting Office, are using less than a tenth of the tobacco-settlement money on anti-smoking programs. Meanwhile, they are spending bales of it on all kinds of unrelated projects, such as highways, bridges and museums. Officials of Niagara County, New York, spent $700,000 of their anti-tobacco money to buy a sprinkler system for a golf course. Maybe they were thinking that a golfer, while teeing off, would get sprayed in the eyes, causing him to hit the ball into a foursome of tobacco executives. Take that, merchants of death!

But as comical as all this is, it is not the zaniest development in the War On Tobacco. For that, we must look to North Carolina. According to an article by Liz Chandler in the Charlotte Observer, North Carolina officials have so far given $41 million of their tobacco settlement to -- I swear I am not making this up -- tobacco growers. Yes! The state gave this money -- which, you may recall, was taken from tobacco companies to punish them for selling tobacco, which is evil -- to these growers so they can buy machinery that will make them more competitive producers of ... tobacco! This is like using War On Terrorism funds to buy flying lessons for al-Qaida.

So that's your update on the Wacky, Wonderful War On Tobacco. It is now essentially a partnership between politicians and tobacco companies to make money by selling cigarettes. It's only a matter of time before some shrewd state cuts out the middleman and starts funding the War On Tobacco by making cigarettes and selling them directly to the public ("Smoke New Jerseys -- They Taste As Great As Their Name!").

No, wait, that would be completely insane.

I give them two years.

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