Cigarettes and Government

Here's the definition of gall: a government lawyer crusading against cigarettes.

A friendly reader of my last column, which urged bar owners in New York to defy the state government's ban on smoking, reminds us of the reason: Uncle Sam included coffin nails in military rations for much of the 20th-century, hooking millions of men on the weed.

Yet casting blame for cigarette disease, as the government wants to do, really isn't the point. Point is, the more government fiddles with anything, the bigger the mess. Government creates problems. It rarely solves them.

C-Rations and Cigs

The fiddling with cigarettes began when the tobacco companies and government colluded to introduce them to servicemen. From World War I through Vietnam, American fighting men got them free.

Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of American boys, who may have never picked up a cigarette, suddenly had plenty. And they had plenty of idle time with nothing to do but smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette.

The practice even continued for 11 years after the surgeon general issued his famous warning in 1964. On the one hand, government warned smoking would kill you. On the other, it passed out millions of smokes.

But suddenly, the government got religion. First, it began a propaganda and regulatory campaign against cigarettes. Then, allegedly reacting to the financial costs of cigarette disease, particularly for smokers on the government health dole, the federal government, in collusion with state attorneys general, launched an unprecedented assault on a legal industry.

As well, plaintiffs dying of cigarette diseases filed lawsuits, with some winning preposterously gargantuan jury awards that punished tobacco companies, again, for selling a legal product whose nature was never unclear.

Government Gall

So government has come full circle, having gone from giving away free cigarettes and creating millions of addicts while it waged war, to waging war against the companies that kept the warriors happy.

The irony of the situation, and the sheer gall of the government, shouldn't be lost on anyone.

In waging war across the planet, the government introduced tobacco to many an innocent boy. For decades, the government subsidized tobacco companies with access to a captive market of mostly conscript soldiers. Government promoted a lethal product and continued to do so after the surgeon general's famous report.

Point? Surely, the military and civilian bureaucrats who participated in the smoking subsidy must be punished. And just as surely, some World War II vet with lung cancer has standing to sue the government if he began smoking in a foxhole at Bastogne or Tarawa.

Using the same legal logic used against the tobacco companies, government shares culpability in causing lung cancer, emphysema, and heart and kidney disease.

Government Creates a Mess

Of course, the government isn't genuinely responsible for all this disease, and neither are the tobacco companies. People smoke of their own volition.

But taking the history of smoking and war against it into account proves that government is as guilty of causing problems as private industry. Indeed, with smoking, it can take more of the blame. After all, government made the conscripts available.

No wars, no draft. No draft, no conscripts. No conscripts, no captive market. No captive market … well you get the idea.

So, on the tobacco industry, smoking, and smokers, indeed, on just about everything, some advice for the government:

Butt out.

September 17, 2003

Syndicated columnist R. Cort Kirkwood [send him mail] is managing editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.

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