ETHICS

I have seen easy morality and cynicism in my lifetime, but none I remember compares to the con job big tobacco and government politicians have just applied to America. There is little question in the minds of most people that for more than thirty years the tobacco industry misrepresented its product as non-addictive, concealed damning data when possible, subsidized biased research that it pawned off on the public as objective fact, and revealed half-truths in a totally evasive and disingenuous way. My dad had known that for fifteen years when he died in 1975 of lung cancer. He told me so. The ethics of the matter, which seem to be of no concern to the average citizen, are depraved and inhuman. One doesn't have to be indignant or morally outraged to arrive at this conclusion: just being honest will do.

Pragmatic people agree there is no straightforward, successful way to persuade or convince addicted smokers to give up the weed. Smoking is too satisfying, too enjoyable, and too strongly addictive to huge numbers of people to ever motivate them to quit. They won't. Dad told me that, too. Their basic physiology, brain chemistry, and emotional makeup allow them no real choice. Smokers who don't fit this category, estimated to be more than half of those with the habit, are generally able to quit once convinced it is in their best interest to do so, but the rest can't. Consequently, it makes little sense to contemplate a population in which no-one smokes, and it is na´ve to believe America has any hope of becoming a nation of non-smokers. At best, for generations there will be a significant residue of addicted Americans puffing contentedly. Some will be afflicted miserably with emphysema, hardened arteries, and lung cancer, and some will live to a ripe old age like George Burns. They are, as my wife has said about me on vices other than smoking, past saving. Amen.

But the recent tobacco issue was not stated in terms of eliminating smoking from America. The $368B agreement that Big Tobacco originally said was acceptable was based on two grounds. The first was medical expense reimbursement to individual states for costs already paid out for smoke related illnesses of indigents. The second was reduction of advertising, education about the considerable hazards of smoking, and finding practical ways to make cigarettes and tobacco products unavailable to young children and teenagers. Among the latter would be elimination of seductive advertising for children, and removal of vending machines so that an adult human being is involved in the purchase of tobacco products. In reward for going this mile, Big Tobacco was to be given a liability cap that prevented individual smokers from trying to recover for medical expenses and damages from smoking related illnesses.

Senator McCain's Senate committee modified the original $368B bill, increasing its costs over 25 years by $148B and raising the liability cap to $6.5B a year. It also included a penalty of $3.5B a year if teenaged smoking did not fall below a stipulated percentage, and raised in steps the tax on a package of cigarettes another $1.10 during a five year period. Faced with this larger penalty and the possibility of a potentially much higher liability from individual suits, Big Tobacco walked away from the deal.

Now all that I've spoken of thus far is business, which is seamy enough to depress anyone with an iota of ethics. The subsequent political posturing and rationalizations for killing the bill are even worse.

Ingenious advertising by the tobacco industry spun the concept of a bill whose purpose was indemnification for costs already paid, into a tax and spend bill. From a site of lofty nobility, Big Tobacco declared the revenues raised through higher prices for its potentially lethal product were a regressive tax, one imposed on people least able to pay for it. The huge sum of money, roughly $20B each year, was looked on by politicians as a windfall to be tapped and spent as they wished. No-one emphasized the fact that the increased cost of a package of cigarettes was intended to raise the level of pain for teenagers who would otherwise find it economically convenient to buy cigarettes. Really die-hard smokers would find the money to continue their habit, but numbers of our young could not easily afford the money to become smokers. My dad could have told them that, too, if he hadn't been dead over twenty years.

As I look with the objectivity of age upon homo sapiens, my species, I can't help becoming discouraged. We can rationalize and tolerate wars, economic embargoes, hatred of ethnic groups and cultures, the undereducation of our young, and lack of medical insurance for more than one in ten Americans. Each of those is evil, and probably unjustifiable on minimal grounds of compassion and human decency. But I didn't realize we could also consign large numbers of our guileless young to the distinct possibility of a protracted and painful death by a sophistical exercise that labels prevention a tax. What a callous and duplicitous evasion to hide behind!

The simple truth is raising the price of a desired commodity is the only way human beings will buy less of it. Nothing else works. Not outlawing it or making it illegal, not calling it harmful, not saying it breaks God's law and is evil, not saying it is unpatriotic, and not saying it is risky and unintelligent will prevent them from obtaining it. We are a singularly stubborn race, willful and cussedly independent, that glories in making its own mistakes. We do not often listen to advice. It is instructive to read what our former Surgeon General, Everett Koop, wrote about the tabled tobacco legislation.

"I hope that the senators who derailed this bill today lose sleep every night listening to the sound of children taking their first puff and the sound of emphysema and cancer patients gasping for their last breath." It may be dramatic, but Dr. Koop has devoted most of his life to improving the nation's health. I'll cut him a little slack in his pronouncements. He's probably earned it, and his goal of preventing millions of our young from becoming nicotine addicts won't earn him a nickel.

But I don't really have much hope it will do any good. In their folk song, The Sounds Of Silence, Simon and Garfunkel sang, "For a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest." My dad would have understood that, too.


Sam Orr sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)