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Big Tobacco - The Government's Favorite Scapegoat

Posted Nov 21 2010 5:20am
Smokers of the world unite! It’s strange for a physician to be sympathizing with the tobacco companies, purveyors of the opium of the people. Am I a stealth nicotine addict, an apologist for Big Tobacco who supplies me with my daily fix? This scurrilous allegation can be vaporized in a one-question quiz.

Identify which two of the three individuals listed below are cigarette smokers.

John Boehner, newly elected Speaker of the House , 3rd in line to the presidency

Barack Obama, Commander-in-Chief and leader of the free world

Michael Kirsch, Hemorrhoid examiner
I’ve never smoked and I detest the habit. It kills people and separates lower income Americans from money that could likely be devoted to more worthwhile endeavors. I remember caring for folks with end stage emphysema as a medical resident and thinking that this disease was worse than cancer. I haven’t changed my mind.

Yet, I have felt for years that Big Tobacco is demonized by the press and the government as Big Scapegoat, and this blame shift has always troubled me. I am well aware that the tobacco companies are guilty of many offenses. They have lied about their corporate practices, advertising strategies and manipulation of nicotine content. These companies – like any individual or business – should be held accountable with available legal remedies. If crimes were committed, then I’m sure this nation has a few idle and altruistic attorneys who can fight them in the courts.

My quarrel is blaming these companies for the decisions that individual smokers have made. Assuming that every nefarious allegation against the tobacco companies is true, and throw in a few more, it doesn’t change the fact that smokers for several decades knew (or should have known, a favorite lawyers’ phrase) that cigarettes steal life and breath. This was common knowledge even before cigarette warnings appeared on cigarette packages. I think it an abuse of the justice system and an assault on morality when an individual who is suffering a horrible consequence of a habit that he freely began, blames the manufacturer for his misery.

We all remember the billion dollar settlements that the tobacco companies paid to the states, ostensibly to be used to reduce cigarette use, but were largely devoted to general operating expenses. The phrase ‘up in smoke’ applies here.

While I personally oppose the habit, and counsel my smoking patients to cease and desist, this is a free society. Folks can choose to engage in a variety of activities that span the risk spectrum.

In my state of Ohio, it is legal to
  • Ride your motorcycle in the rain without a helmet
  • Become an alcoholic
  • Flush your life saving medicines down the toilet
  • Hunt
  • Ski on a Black Diamond path when you should be on the Bunny Hill
  • Gorge yourself on a diet of crème brulee, cheesecake and assorted deep fried delicacies
The federal government has issued new regulations that will require cigarette manufacturers to incorporate new labels that will cover half of the cigarette pack or carton. These 36 color photos will be graphic and ghastly portrayals of the ravages of nicotine addiction. The labeling will be a veritable slide show of horror, including a corpse with a toe tag, a man blowing smoke out of a tracheostomy hole in his neck and a wasted and cadaverous individual who looks too weak to lift his last cigarette.

Cigarettes must not be entirely evil, or else the government would outlaw them. Here are some pesky realities that anti-tobacco company zealots must overcome.

  • The product is legal
  • Tobacco directly and indirectly creates jobs and income in all 50 states
  • Smokers pay a fortune in taxes to the states and to the federal government
  • Many smokers enjoy the habit
Don’t misunderstand this post. I will never smoke and hope that no person I care about will pursue this habit. I encourage all inhalers to exchange their habit for a more salubrious addiction. What I do oppose is blaming tobacco companies for the woes of their customers. I also am uncomfortable with the government slowly suffocating these companies who are entitled to advertise and sell their legal wares. If, as a matter of public policy, cigarettes’ adverse health consequences outweigh their economic benefits and the rights of smokers, then have the guts to outlaw them outright, rather than incrementally bleed the companies.

If you support the government’s strategy of pursuing the demise of Big Tobacco by a thousand cuts, then who will be the next targets? Should every product that is not on an approved health and wellness list be attacked? Who decides which companies and activities should be on the list?

Beware! We may soon see similar scenes of ghoulish horror on Hershey bars, Frosted Flakes and even Twinkies. Ronald McDonald will be behind bars, wearing a different set of stripes. Sesame Street's Cookie Monster will be in shackles.  When you pop a champagne cork at your next family celebration, the label won’t be a pastoral scene of a vineyard, but will be a jaundiced alcoholic vomiting blood.

I’m not scared of the government’s new cigarette horror show. I’m scared it won’t end.

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