August 29, 1997

The Tobacco Wars

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


There are several groups that are genuinely interested in getting people to stop smoking and to thereby prolonging their lives. However, when the smoke clears you will find that the basic decisions on what should be done to the tobacco companies for their complicity in the premeditated murder of roughly half a million people every year will be based on one consideration, and one consideration only, MONEY.

If you want to try to predict the outcome, here are some of the variables to consider:

The tobacco companies motives are the only ones that are clear and obvious. They want to make as much money as possible, which means selling as much tobacco as they can at the highest possible price. This means getting more people to use more tobacco. To do that, more people have to be introduced to the habit. Since old people die, and tobacco users die earlier, young people have to be induced to start smoking. The tobacco companies have been phenomenally successful in getting women to smoke, thereby doubling their customer base over what it was when it was mostly men who smoked.They have been so successful that now more women die of lung cancer than do of breast cancer. This is not because deaths from breast cancer have gone down, they haven't, but because lung cancer deaths in women have gone up. Cigarette ads in woman's magazines are exquisitely persuasive. The message is that beautiful women smoke cigarettes, so, if you want to look beautiful, you should be smoking too. There is little doubt that the message is effective.

If all tobacco advertising was banned, it would constitute a severe blow to the tobacco companies. Consequently, this is not going to happen. The same thing goes for a ban on showing people smoking on TV and the movies. After all, if you expect the tobacco companies to pay the state governments and the lawyers, you have to keep tobacco profitable.

Lengthy prison terms for tobacco executives, as has been attempted (with questionable success) for illegal drug dealers, might make a difference, but I doubt it. What could you prosecute them for? Conspiracy, perjury and racketeering. There is no doubt in my mind that tobacco executives are guilty of all of these; but profitability seems to be considered an extenuating circumstance for just about anything.

Trial lawyers will profit no matter what, as long as litigations continues, and we can be sure that they will continue for a very long time.

Politicians stand to get more money by helping the tobacco companies than by hurting them. Many politicians now get big money from the tobacco companies legally. How much the under-the-table payments amount to will never be known. I would be willing to bet that they are more than the legal payments to political parties and to various campaign funds.

State and federal treasuries get big bucks out of tobacco sales and some southern states are largely dependent financially on tobacco. As a consequence,state governments have a financial stake in keeping tobacco sales as high as possible.

What the state attorneys general are saying to the tobacco companies is, "We demand our cut!" And they will get it. If the levy on the tobacco companies continues for a long period of time, the state governments will have an interest in keeping the tobacco companies healthy, just as they are doing with the gambling industry.

Advertising agencies will lose big bucks if tobacco advertising is banned. Consequently, that will not happen. Advertising people are used to winning, no matter which side wins. When a California initiative was passed to tax tobacco and use the money to fight smoking, the ad agencies must have celebrated.They are now being paid for running one of the most inept anti-tobacco campaigns that it is possible to run. The only company that would hire those people is a company that wanted the anti-tobacco campaign to fail. That company is the State of California.

If tobacco use stopped tomorrow, the insurance companies stand to make immense amounts of money. Their profit from medical insurance goes up as fewer people need medical care. Their profit from life insurance could skyrocket, as it did when antibiotics came into general use. Insurance premiums are based on life tables, which calculate the risk of dying at specific ages. As the statistician Raymond Pearl said about life insurance: you make a bet with the insurance company on your life, and if you die you win. If you live longer, the insurance company wins. The insurance companies stand to profit if fewer people smoke. They may be the only players in this game who do.

So, what can we expect? We can expect a lot of noise about what the states are doing to stop smoking, with little or nothing actually accomplished. Am I saying that the federal and state governments are only interested in money? Yes; that and politicians keeping their jobs.

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