Smoke and Be Happy

Aunt Marlene believed the tobacco firms’ lies 40 years ago. They are still lying. She is dying.

My Aunt Marlene is dying and she believes this may the last year of her life. Her black humor is all that sustains her family, as we watch her go raging against the night. “Cedars-Sinai,” she says of the Los Angeles hospital where she is receiving lung cancer treatment, “has killed more Jews than Hitler.”

She has just seen her first grandchild born – a girl, whose tiny life seems to keep her alive. When my Uncle George, my mother’s brother, married Marlene, most of our family disapproved because she was a Jew. Worse, she was a Jew from New York who would not take abuse from my grandmother, the family matriarch. She became my favorite aunt, a beauty with her lavish red hair and her Jewish wit and warmth, the one who took me in when my mother died.

I must have been about ten when she married my uncle. In the 1950s and 1960s everyone smoked cigarettes – my grandmother, my mother, Uncle George and Aunt Marlene. My grandfather smoked cigars, and mercifully he died before John F Kennedy imposed the trade embargo on Cuba. My father smoked cigarettes, although he quit when he was 50. This was in California, now almost a smoke-free state.

cigar smoking

The transformation from smoke, when rooms filled with the stuff were the emblem of national power-broking, to smoke-free has not taken long. Over the past 30 years American cigarette sales have declined steadily. The process began with the publication of medical evidence that the tobacco companies had suppressed, and accelerated with the congressional ban in 1971 on television and radio advertising, then the health warnings on packs.

In 1964 42 percent of American adults smoked cigarettes. By 1978 38 percent were smokers and the number has since fallen to about a quarter of the adult population. In 1985 an uprising began against smoking in public places, when the healthy Colorado ski resorts, Aspen and Vail, banned cigarettes from restaurants. California, and later Britain, joined the trend. The most ferocious instance of an anti-smoking law came in Palos Verdes, a rich suburb of Los Angeles, which forbids people to smoke in their own gardens. Soon, I suppose, they’ll ban it in the houses as well, giving the police another excuse to break down our doors. The smokeless wildfire spread to New York, whose best restaurant owners were outraged. They have found ways around it, just as they did 75 years ago when an interfering and self-righteous government made the sale of alcohol illegal.

Smoking is a burning political issue in America, and President Bill Clinton has approached it with characteristic commitment. He announced plans to regulate the weed, then promptly withdrew the proposal. The Wall Street Journal said Clinton had launched “one of the most aggressive US government assaults on an industry ever” – a measure of the ferocity of attacks on American industry. Clinton had called only for placing tobacco, an addictive and harmful substance, on a list of drugs to be controlled by the Food and Drug Administration. This was not a ban, but it might have limited the selling of cigarettes to licensed tobacconists, pharmacists and liquor stores.

It was a hollow threat. Republicans and Southern Democrats in Congress denounced Clinton’s interference with the free market and, ever-willing to abandon a principle that might offend someone, Clinton backed down. He asked Congress instead to make cigarettes less accessible to children. That would mean the removal of vending machines from places where children congregate. Big deal, no cigarette vending machines in nursery schools; but big enough for the tobacco companies to resist.

big tobacco

Clinton’s half-hearted gesture went down well in suburban California, but it won’t do him much good in tobacco-growing states such as Kentucky, where the yellow nicotiana tabacum leaf provides half the state’s $1.7 billion farm income. The Democratic candidate for the Kentucky governorship, Paul Patton, lit up in the middle of almost every speech, to the applause of tobacco planters. Patton may not smoke at home, but on the stump there was a vote in every puff. In the politically correct states politicians would no more smoke in public than wear Hell’s Angels’ leather, even if they smoke from morning to night at home. America is far from reaching the political maturity at which its politicians might decide whether to smoke, or drink, or use drugs, or have affairs, or not, at their own inclination rather than from fear of exposure by those other guardians of national sanctimony: journalists.

Clinton seized the high ground, as he did with his healthcare non-policy, and ceded it to the opposition as soon as he had walked away with the votes. Nonetheless, the tobacco industry is fighting to preserve its right to addict anyone to tobacco. Congress is avoiding a choice: between a multi-billion dollar industry that pays a fortune on lobbying, lunches, electoral campaigns, advertising and taxes, and a moral majority that does not want its children to smoke. Like Clinton, legislators condemn youth smoking and then, in a great flurry of inactivity, do nothing.

If either Clinton or the Congress are serious when they take office in January, they will eliminate the tobacco subsidies. The hated federal government donates $26 million to tobacco growers to market their crop, without any howls from the tobacco industry about getting government off their backs. The government could reduce smoking – and thus the $50 billion in smoking-related medical costs and lost productivity that Representative Richard Durbin of Illinois estimates the country loses each year – if it could withdraw taxpayers’ support to growers.

It should be easy for the Republicans, who seized Congress on a promise to reduce government spending. Newt Gingrich and his acolytes swore to reverse the federal hand-outs of the New Deal, except the hi-tech and military subsidies to Gingrich’s home district. The tobacco supports are genuine New Deal legislation, introduced at President Franklin Roosevelt’s insistence in 1938. In July last year the Republican Congress voted overwhelmingly to prolong FDR’s tobacco grant – while cutting back on the FDR and Great Society gifts to poor people with children. The tobacco subsidy money, like aid to agribusiness, Lockheed and General Dynamics, was paid on time. The bickering over whether and how to restrict children’s access to cigarettes will go on for years.

cigarette smoking

The largest tobacco companies, RJR Nabisco and Philip Morris, won a landmark propaganda victory last year against ABC News. ABC had reported that the companies manipulated the level of nicotine, tobacco’s addictive constituent, in their cigarettes. Manufacturers adjust levels by removing the nicotine from tobacco and then restoring it. The amount of nicotine determines addictiveness. ABC used the term “spike” – implying the companies added new nicotine – in reference to this process, providing a legal pretext to discredit the network’s otherwise impeccable reporting.

Philip Morris sued ABC for $10 billion, and lawyers for the two sides agreed on an apology that ABC broadcast twice during prime-time hours. Further, ABC paid Philip Morris’s costs, estimated by the Wall Street Journal at $15 million. Why ABC agreed to cover $15 million in legal fees when the Supreme Court has never sustained a libel judgment of more than $3 million is a mystery. Many at ABC believed the company wanted to resolve the issue in advance of its surprise sale to Wait Disney for $9 billion. (ABC executives saw their company shares double overnight. The journalists, disgusted by the apology, did not sign it.) Philip Morris published ABC’s cowardly mea culpa in full-page, triumphal advertisements in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and other major newspapers under the headline: “Apology Accepted.”

Lost in the tobacco pushers’ propaganda coup was the vital and deadly fact that ABC had exposed: the companies do manipulate the addictiveness of their product. A Federal Drug Agency report noted: “Internal tobacco industry documents demonstrate the industry’s longstanding knowledge of – and extensive research on – the significant addictive and pharmacological effects of nicotine.”

FDA criteria, whatever Clinton says, require the agency to regulate sales of all addictive and harmful substances, including tobacco.
Subsequently scientists have isolated the cancerous element in the tobacco leaf which the companies insisted did not exist. Yet tobacco remains unregulated by the FDA.

Philip Morris and his competitors are killing my Aunt Marlene, who accepted, as most people did, the advertising for cigarettes 40 years ago and since. The companies said cigarettes were good for our health, promoted fitness and were beneficial in the treatment of asthma. It was their Contract with America: smoke and you shall be healthy, happy and sexy.

They lied then, and they lie now. Cigarettes are more harmful to health than the more regulated alcohol and prohibited cannabis. It would not be unreasonable to place the sale of all three under similar regulation, without ostracizing those who use them. Yet whenever someone suggests legalizing cannabis, or regulating tobacco, the complacent defenders of a status quo that clearly does not work rally to force it on another generation.

The voters of California, in their typically idiosyncratic way, have taken a step forward, by voting for a referendum measure that allows the terminally ill to ease their suffering by smoking marijuana under medical prescription. Where legislators perpetuate hypocrisy, the public has on this occasion taken a step towards ending a prohibition every bit as harmful to the body politic as the one against alcohol in the 1920s. But if Americans want to rationalize the sale of all addictive substances – from tobacco to alcohol to cocaine to marijuana – we shall first have to elect rational leaders. No sign of that on the horizon.