Federal Lawsuit Against Tobacco Industry Is Long Overdue

24 September 1999

By Stentor Danielson

I came to a realization this summer, while earning my day's pay cleaning the sidewalk in front of Campton's Funeral Home and the parking lot of Country Harvest Market. If it were possible for the state of Pennsylvania to collect the $300 littering fine every time somebody threw a cigarette butt on the ground, I am certain that the six percent sales tax could be completely eliminated. The state would probably actually make money, because there are a lot of butts on the ground.

I realize that my proposal to replace sales taxes with littering fines is unfeasible. But Wednesday, the federal government did the next best thing when it filed a lawsuit against the tobacco industry to recover money it has spent through Medicare and military and veterans' programs to treat smoking-related health problems. I hope that this can become an important step in the fight against smoking.

The lawsuit charges that the tobacco industry has known for a long time that smoking jeopardizes smokers' health but has ignored that knowledge to further its own profits. Though no specific amount has yet been named, it has been estimated that the federal government has spent about $20 billion on smoking-related health costs since the 1950s.

The tobacco industry, along with some of Congress' extreme Republicans, view the suit as an attack on business and a precursor to a ban on smoking.

I agree with the suit's opponents in that the suit is - or should be - an attack on a business. The tobacco industry is a business, just like the Mafia is a business. The tobacco industry makes its money not by producing a useful product for the benefit of the public, but by catering to and encouraging a repulsive habit harmful to both smokers and those around them.

I realize that a large sector of the Colgate population smokes and that my uncompromising disgust at smoking might offend some of them. If so, that's good. I'm tired of holding my breath for the last 50 feet of my approach to the front door of Lawrence Hall and of coming home to Read -- a substance-free dorm, mind you -- to find a doorstep littered with not-quite-extinguished butts.

And that doesn't even take into consideration the proven fact that smoking is a huge health risk.

While restocking the cigarette display at Country Harvest, I noticed that the majority of cigarette brands carried the watered-down warning "Quitting smoking now may reduce risks to your health," rather than the bolder "Smoking causes emphysema, lung cancer, and may complicate pregnancy." That might be a good thing, as makers of brands whose packages bear the more frightening list of smoking-related diseases would seem to be implying that they are proud of the damage that their product can do. But even the weaker warning should remind the manufacturers that they are not only helping but actively encouraging people to die slowly and painfully.

So cigarette manufacturers deserve to be attacked. For too long, Americans have viewed smoking as something that is, if not admirable, at least acceptable. Cowboys - the quintessential "tough guys" of our national folklore - usually smoked. Recently, there has been a cigar craze among upscale young people. Even the intelligent students of a high-caliber institution like Colgate can be seen casually puffing out behind Curtis Hall or on the patio of the Coop.

The tobacco industry has vowed to fight to the end, rather than settling the case. That bodes well for the suit. I have confidence that any jury of Americans would be inclined to make the tobacco industry pay. Nonsmokers are doubtlessly angry that their tax dollars have been spent treating smoking related diseases like emphysema and lung cancer, which are completely preventable. Smokers hopefully realize the disgusting nature of their condition and want to do anything they can to prevent the tobacco industry from sucking in any more customers. It will make a much better impression on the country, as well as reclaiming more money, if the tobacco industry is unquestionably defeated in court.

So what is the government going to do once it has $20 billion of the tobacco industry's money? I think the answer is obvious - spend it on anti-smoking campaigns. It is a simple rule of economics that if supply is restricted, but demand remains the same -- as would be the case if the government only attacked the tobacco producers -- prices will rise.

This would seem like a good thing, as it will allow fewer cigarettes to be bought. But the pinch will be felt most among the poor. Extremely poor smokers are already given cash assistance with which to buy cigarettes to prevent them from shortchanging their children by trading food stamps for smokes. Raising the price of cigarettes can only aggravate this problem.

The key, then, is to go after demand. If demand disappears, the market will collapse. But demand is not such an easy thing to target. For this, the government needs everyone's support. Anti-smoking programs in schools and anti-smoking advertisements on TV and billboards are a good start. But I suspect that the most powerful influences on young smokers are the encouragement of peers and the influence of the media.

Television, movies and the Internet have already shown a remarkable capacity to sell out to commercial interests - witness the pod-racing scene in Episode One, tailor-made for conversion into a video game. They need to turn this ability to serve outside interests to work for good.

We need more than anti-smoking plugs, though. Our on-screen culture should portray a world in which, even among rebellious groups, tobacco is taboo and those who quit have triumphed over a serious enemy. But it will take encouragement from both the government and the public to make the media understand.

Word-of-mouth advertising needs to be employed, too. As a society, we need to make it clear to those who look up to us - younger siblings, neighbors and even impressionable strangers - that we are proud that we don't smoke or that we are ashamed that we do and are actively trying to quit.

The Justice Department should be praised for taking a stand against the influence of the tobacco industry. I am confident that they will win this battle. But without help from all of us, they might still lose the war.

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