Monday, April 27, 1998

Week of 04/27/1998

The Tobacco Gimme Bill
Trust Congress? What are you, nuts?
- by David Matthews 2

I remember my college theatre debut. It was 1984, and the play was Agatha Christie’s "Ten Little Indians." My character was Judge Wargrave, an elderly member of the judiciary. In the play, Wargrave smoked. In fact, the script called for Wargrave to walk across the stage while describing a case he presided over and get a cigarette from over the mantle. The very motivation for Wargrave to be on the other end of the room was to get a smoke.

Problem was, I don’t smoke, and I wasn’t planning on starting just to satisfy the momentary requirement of my character. So instead of a box of cigarettes, I had the stage hands place a jar of candy mints on the faux mantle.

Mind you, those were different days. Back then, non-smokers weren’t rabid health crusaders who were trying to make life smoke-free so they can make sure they

can see their cup of cappuccino laced with Prozac. Back then, the two sides of the ashtray lived in uneasy détente, recognizing each other exists, but otherwise agreeing to disagree.

Of course, today’s smokers are considered to be worse than child molesters according to the paranoia of anti-smoking crusaders. Forced by laws and regulations to sit outside buildings like modern day lepers for them to enjoy their puffs of tobacco. I think there’s nothing more absurd in California right now than to see adult smokers being forced to decide which "evil substance" they must consume - alcohol or tobacco. That is thanks to a new law enacted this year that bans smoking from inside all public places, including bars and restaurants.

Or worse, smokers are treated like innocent victims, unwillingly seduced into a life-threatening addiction by the evil tobacco industry. Of course, it’s hard to come up with any kind of defense against the tobacco companies given the public shellacking they’re getting thanks to the media. And that is, I believe, the intent by the anti-smoking forces.

Yet, the same time, I believe that the anti-smoking forces may have finally pushed too far.

For decades, they were on the losing side against the big tobacco companies. Tobacco has been a mainstay in America long before this country was born. It made the landowners of the mid-south rich, and funded both sides of the American Revolution. The halls of Congress are still adorned with tobacco leaves, and both houses still have spittoons and snuff boxes. Until recent decades, nobody went after the tobacco companies.

Then came all the medical dangers of cigarettes, and the tide slowly turned away from the tobacco companies. Suddenly, the big companies that would rather fight than switch began settling cases out of court. Whole states jumped in what can only be seen as the great tobacco money giveaway.

So instead of trying to settle with forty or so various class-action lawsuits, each promoted by high-priced law firms that make a fortune off this kind of legal action, the tobacco companies offered a combined settlement. They would voluntarily agree to regulations by the Food and Drug Administration; they would voluntarily agree to advertising restrictions in public events like auto races and tennis tournaments; and they would voluntarily agree to pay hundreds of billions of dollars not only in restitution but to also contribute to the decrease in the number of teen smokers.

This was, for the anti-smoking forces, a huge victory for them. They managed to get the tobacco companies to agree to do what they’ve been fighting for. All they had to do was to get this comprehensive agreement past Congress for approval.

And that’s where their plans fell short.

You see, the anti-smoking crusaders who hammered out this monumental tobacco settlement ran into the biggest highway robbers in the world - Congress. They see any national settlement monies as THEIR money, to be spent with as THEY see fit. Oh, the states might get a pittance of the money for some of their health costs, but in the eyes of Congress and President Clinton, the money was not only theirs, but it was already spent for their social programs!

So it should be no surprise that when Congress got finished revamping the proposed settlement, the tobacco companies said "SCREW YOU!" After all, they forged the initial settlement out of good faith that Congress would simply agree to it and that would be it. Instead, they got draconian limits placed on advertising that barred everything except the black and white type seen on generic foods, crippling payments up to $500 billion dollars instead of the proposed $350 billion, no immunity from future lawsuits, and increased penalties to the tobacco companies if teen smoking isn’t reduced.

Now, you may think this is nothing. After all, we’re talking about "big industry" here. The new form of evil in the world, replacing communism and liberalism. They’ve got oodles of money. They’re old money. And they’re not attacking smokers directly. After all, they’re just innocent victims.

These people forget one of the oldest laws of business, be they big or small - always pass your overhead into the price of your product. You don’t think that the tobacco companies won’t pass on their burden to the smokers through higher prices? And that’s not counting the crippling tax the Gods of Mount Morality want to pass on top of that!

And all this is under the assumption that the number of tobacco users remains the same. At last count, smokers only represent 25% of the public, and steadily decreasing. You think that the added costs of cigarettes, not to mention being treated like societal lepers, won’t have an effect on those remaining smokers? What happens when the number of smokers go down to almost nothing? Who will generate the tax revenue then to pay for all those precious social programs? You can’t tax the smokers of other countries, only those smokers in THIS country.

Let’s be brutally honest here - the biggest mistake the anti-tobacco crusaders made was to agree to a comprehensive settlement instead of working one state at a time. They should’ve known that Congress and Big Bubba Clinton would NEVER have allowed such a settlement to go past them without bastardizing it to the point where the tobacco companies would balk at it. And balk they have. Any kind of settlement from this point on will be next to impossible to make.

Of course, there are those even in the media that say that they don’t need the consent of the tobacco companies to enact the measures of the McCain Bill, which I think should be renamed the "Shut up and give US the money" Bill, or simply the Tobacco Gimme Bill. They feel they can pass all sorts of restrictions against the big tobacco companies with ease, which would be typical behavior for the Gods of Mount Legislation. But it won’t be easy. What the tobacco companies once voluntarily agreed to will now be fought hard in the courts. The restrictions on advertising and the content of advertising can be shot down with just two words - First Amendment. Since we’re not talking about obscene material, the Department of Justice will have a much harder time trying to justify a clear and present danger to the justices of the Supreme Court.

Then there are the political repercussions. You don’t think that the tobacco farmers are going to sit back and allow the destruction of everything they and their forefathers have made go up in smoke? (No pun intended.) Big Babysitter Clinton hasn’t felt the true ire of the tobacco farmers yet. Wait until they start losing farms and losing jobs, then we’ll see how casual the Big Bubba gets about sticking his head out in that area. And don’t think that his heir apparent, Al "I’m Not A Tree, I Just Act Like One On TV" Gore, will get any support in his own home town. By the way Al, how’s the family tobacco farm doing?

In short, the crusade against tobacco may turn into something these crusaders don’t want - a War on Tobacco. Because whenever the federal government turns a social program into a war, they fail miserably. Remember Prohibition? The War on Poverty? The War on Crime? The War on Drugs? You think we’re winning those wars? Well then, you’re going to love the War on Tobacco! When the number of smokers skyrockets back up to sixty or seventy-five percent of the populace, most of it against federal regulations, these anti-smokers will have nobody to blame but themselves.

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