Tobacco has become a four-letter word. The cigarette companies are getting it from all sides. The federal Food and Drug Administration wants to regulate tobacco as a drug. State governments are suing to recover Medicare money spent on elderly people with tobacco-related illnesses. Heirs of longtime smokers are suing for wrongful death.
It's not a happy time in the business.
It's so bad that the companies are negotiating settlements with several states; they are willing to pay billions of dollars now in exchange for immunity from future suits. That was all complicated recently when R. J. Reynolds prevailed in a private suit in Florida.
The great tobacco controversy shows how far we have come from being a society of self-responsible people. It also shows how we fail to think in commonsense terms. To begin with, no one is forced to take up smoking. It's a choice. Usually the first smoke is unpleasant. If there's any force involved, it's a person's forcing himself to try the second cigarette. It's a little absurd for someone who has smoked 30 or 40 years to sue a tobacco company. Since the 1960s, cigarette packages have warned that smoking may be a health hazard. The term "coffin nail" was coined to derogate cigarettes in the 19th century. In 1607 King James I said tobacco was "noxious to the lung." That seems like sufficient notice that smoking entails some risk.
It is true that the tobacco companies denied the danger. Scientific evidence for the cause of disease can be tricky, especially at the beginning. Correlation is not causation. But even if we assume the worst about the companies, they were not the only source of information, as we've seen. In recent years, smokers have tended to overrate the health risk of cigarettes. So people have known the risks and yet have still chosen to smoke.
Ah, but did they choose? Weren't they addicted to nicotine by the scoundrels in the tobacco business? Here we get into important semantic issues. It may be easy to form a habit of smoking cigarettes, but that is not the same thing as addiction. In the relationship between a person and a cigarette, the active ingredient is the person. You habituate yourself to smoking cigarettes. They do not addict you. There's a big difference.
Moreover, people quit smoking all the time, often without any help whatsoever. There are more ex-smokers than smokers walking around. It may be hard to stop, but it isn't impossible. People choose to start smoking. People choose to keep smoking. When it's important enough to them, people choose to stop smoking.
The private suits against the tobacco companies are another sad mark of our era: when something goes wrong, sue someone.
The Medicare suits are even more ludicrous. The theory is that the ailments suffered by elderly smokers drain the states' Medicare coffers. So the deep-pocketed tobacco companies should pay. What a mess of fallacy!
Why should the companies pay? When people get heart disease, states don't sue beef cattle farmers or meat packers. It is more than likely that people who die prematurely from smoking save the taxpayers money. Those people will not linger for years in costly nursing homes or get far more costly diseases like Alzheimer's. Maybe the tobacco companies should get bonuses.
The Congressional Budget Office a few years ago studied the question of how high the cigarette tax should be raised to offset the medical costs allegedly imposed on society by smokers. The findings were stunning: to truly reflect those costs, said the CBO, the tax would have to be cut.
The best way to clear up the cost problem is to abolish Medicare and other forced taxpayer-funded medical care. Let people buy health insurance and pay any added premiums associated with smoking. That policy would be most suitable for a free society.
As the old Spanish proverb had it: Take what you want, and pay for it.
- Sheldon Richman
Sheldon Richman is vice president of policy affairs at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia.