SHOW OF HANDS, please: How many of you were unaware, prior to March 20, that smoking can cause lung cancer? Nobody? Well, how many of you didn't know that nicotine is addictive? Again nobody! OK, one more question: When tobacco executives insisted over the years that there was no proof that cigarettes are dangerous, how many of you believed them? No one? No one at all?
That's strange. It was treated as very big news last month when Liggett Group, the maker of Chesterfields, agreed to admit that smoking causes cancer and to release documents showing that the hazards of smoking were well known to cigarette manufacturers.
News reports called Liggett's admission "devastating" to the tobacco industry. Minnesota Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III analogized it to "busting a street drug dealer to get at the Colombian drug cartel." His Arizona counterpart, Grant Woods, pronounced Liggett's deal "the beginning of the end of this conspiracy of lies and deception."
Granted, the current fashion is to treat cigarette makers as two levels below pond scum. (Philip Hilts, author of the anti-tobacco screed "Smokescreen," explicitly compares them to "the guards and doctors in the Nazi death camps" — a comparison that says more about him than about his subject.) And granted, ambitious attorneys general hoping to ride the tobacco litigation to higher office can't be expected to scruple at a little hyperbole.
But really — is anyone in America prepared to argue that Liggett's admission tells us something we didn't already know?
Last July, when Bob Dole lectured NBC's Katie Couric that there is "a mixed view among scientists and doctors" on whether cigarettes are "addictive or not," the whole country laughed in his face. Not know if cigarettes are addictive? Who does he think he's kidding? Everyone knows they're addictive.
Yet now that a cigarette company admits what everyone knows, we are supposed to treat it as a stunning bolt from the blue?
For decades, the pluperfect illustration of "bald-faced lie" has been: tobacco executives claiming cigarettes do no harm. Not only have they not fooled anyone with their years of stonewalling, they have made themselves objects of fun and ridicule. Like Bill Clinton's claim to preside over "the most ethical administration in the history of the republic," their lies have been so whoppingly, howlingly, hilariously audacious that no one past the third grade has ever believed them.
It is not exactly news that smoking is a foul and unhealthy habit. Long before the surgeon general's warning of 1966, there was King James's warning of 1604: "A custom loathsome to the eye, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless."
G.I. Joe didn't nickname his Lucky Strikes "coffin nails" because he thought they were a good source of iron. At least since the early 1950s — when Reader's Digest was running antismoking articles with titles like "Cancer by the Carton" — Americans have been well aware that cigarettes — tar and nicotine specifically — were bad for them. Did tobacco executives lie when they claimed there was no evidence that cigarettes killed? Sure they did. Did they deceive? Of course not. You can't deceive someone who knows you're lying through your teeth.
It is easy to forget sometimes, amid all the screeching by tobacco plaintiffs (and the promiscuous comparisons to Colombian cocaine cartels) that cigarettes are not contraband. They are sold by lawful vendors to willing consumers, who pay punitive taxes in order to buy a product they enjoy. If the anti-smoking Savonarolas who decry the tobacco companies' perfidy had the courage of their convictions, they would call for an outright ban on tobacco. But they are cowards and sneaks. They want to force their personal distaste for tobacco on everyone who smokes — without having to face the political consequences of saying so.
Virginia Slims customers may have come a long way, baby, but not because cigarette companies tricked them into it. Proof is in the numbers: Only 25 percent of Americans smoke today, down from 43 percent in 1965. Smoking is disappearing from our culture, and none of the cigarette firms' pathetic fibs has been able to preserve it. In a little more than a generation, we have gone from "Smoke 'em if you got 'em" to "Will that be smoking or nonsmoking?" to "We are a smoke-free workplace." The tobacco industry is in retreat, and has been for 30 years.
Americans can decide for themselves if they want to take up smoking, and more and more of them are deciding they don't. It doesn't require state attorneys general filing sophistical lawsuits to "recover" smokers' medical costs. It doesn't require the Food and Drug Administration to "regulate" cigarettes as a drug. It doesn't require coaxing juries to play Deep Pocket, in which people who chose to smoke and got sick get to make a third party pay for their bad judgment.
Cigarettes are an ever-easier target, because smokers are an ever-smaller group. But don't be too smug. When Big Brother's nannies and controllers get finished with tobacco, they'll move on to your pleasure next.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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