Monday, January 12, 2009

Smoking Government: A Tobacco Tale

Smoking became a significant political issue beginning with a shocking event in 1964 -- First Surgeon General's Report: Smoking and Health. The Johnson Administration’s Surgeon General Dr. Luther L. Terry’s report came to what was then an astounding conclusion: “smoking causes cancer." The implications were staggering since the administration needed the tobacco growing states on its side, not to mention the industry’s money. To say that smoking was not only a multi-billion dollar year industry but a way of life would be understatement.

Joseph Califano, the senior domestic policy aide to
President Johnson, said, "It was a very dramatic and courageous thing to do." Califano also said, "We wanted to get schools integrated, the voters' rights act passed, fair housing passed. And all of those things required us to take on the whole phalanx of Southern states." Therefore, the Johnson Administration did not want to deal with the implications of the report by directly addressing them.

When I turned fourteen in 1964, I looked forward to taking up
smoking as a grown up kind of thing. At the time almost half of all Americans smoked and they did it everywhere – restaurants, theatres, airplanes, offices. Television and movie stars smoked and cigarette advertising was everywhere. Magazines, newspapers, radio, television, billboards, movie theatres all benefited from cigarette ad revenue. Even television cartoons had cigarette sponsors.

In my parents’ time, during the print and radio advertising era, icons like Santa Claus and actors like
Ronald Reagan lit up. Medical doctors endorsed cigarette brands for “patients who smoke.” Millions of dollars went into television commercials which created their own icons, like the Marlboro Man. Even Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble lit up Winston’s. That is until Congress passed and President Nixon signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act on April 1, 1970. When it went into effect on New Year’s Day 1971, television lost $220 million a year in revenue.

More money is being spent today on tobacco
advertising in anti-smoking campaigns. It is just that those ads may not be working the way they are intended. Many that use disturbing images are designed to scare people so that they don’t smoke. Present research, however, shows that such a strategy either does not work or may backfire.

The special relationship between tobacco and government date from the founding period. One can see it literally set in stone at the 19th century US Capitol building. The sight is called the
Hall of Columns -- 28 Corinthian columns line the corridor. When you look at their capitals, you see a stone work metaphor. In addition to classical acanthus leaves and native thistles, American tobacco plants appear to support the ceiling of government. In reality, tobacco still supports a lot of government at many levels.

Tobacco remains a big source of tax revenue at federal, state, county and city levels. According to the
Tobacco Merchants Association, bills to raise tobacco taxes have been active in 22 state legislatures since last year. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that the previous year 11 states enacted increases. How much money is that? R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company estimates that state taxes generate almost $15 billion in revenue, while the federal excise tax of 39 cents a pack raises over $7 billion.

If you are a cigarette smoker traveling to New York, you may want to take a carton of smokes with you. The New York Legislature recently approved an increase in the cigarette tax that makes it highest in the country, almost $3 a pack. That is projected to raise $265 million for the state’s general fund.

Cigarette manufacturers argue that tobacco taxes make
for an unstable revenue source because of declining sales. Supporters of increased cigarette taxes make a claim that increases in tobacco taxes drive down smoking rates, particularly among youths who may find that they cannot afford to start. The tobacco industry says smokers already bear an unfair tax burden and that the tax increases encourage bootlegging.

The economics of cigarettes first became an issue to me when I went to military school in 1965. A pack of cigarettes from a machine on campus cost a quarter. In town a carton cost $1.65, great savings on a $4.00 per week allowance. Price increases made me quit in 1975 when the pack cost half a dollar. I quit again in 1985 when it crossed the dollar mark. When I finally quit last year cigarettes cost about $4.00 a pack in San Francisco.

While the feds and states are raising tobacco taxes, smoking rates are going down. The
American Heart Association says 26 million men and 21 million women in the U.S. are smokers. Meanwhile, cigarette sales declined 18%; nearly 4 billion packs a year by 2007. Unfortunately, the National Cancer Institute says smoking-related illnesses are pushing half-a-million deaths each year in the U.S.

As if smoking is not enough of a danger and its economic and health impacts are not scary enough, there is yet more to fear. Step aside second-hand smoke. Meet the new headline maker --
third-hand smoke. Third-hand smoke is a term being used to describe the invisible but toxic gases and particles that cling to smokers’ hair and clothing, lingering long after second-hand smoke has cleared. Passive smoking makes headlines but it may not be a very good point of argument.

According to Jane Gravelle, an economist with the
Congressional Research Service, “You hear that passive smoking might increase your risk 20 percent, 50 percent, 70 percent, but what you don't know is that lung cancer among nonsmoking individuals is a very, very rare disease. So you can have a big percentage increase, and it's still a very small risk.”

I first read about third-hand smoke the same day I read the latest story about the president-elect’s smoking. His doctor described
Mr. Obama’s smoking history as “intermittent” and said he had quit several times. That is good enough with me. However there are folks who will wonder whether or not his quitting is a good thing, especially in a crisis situation otherwise known as the presidency.

Enter Neal Benowitz of the
University of California, San Francisco, an expert in nicotine addiction. He says that “there is evidence that stopping smoking can cause irritability, slowed reaction time, or difficulty concentrating and solving problems. But that’s typically in heavy smokers — people who’ve smoked 10 or more cigarettes a day.” The good news for the nation is that Mr. Obama’s doctor reports that “he had quit several times.”

What I have found is that it takes a lot of quitting to quit smoking. My advice to the new president is to personalize the act of quitting. Don’t turn your daughters into smokers, either first-, second- or third-hand. The government will be able to find revenue somewhere else. Besides, as American author and non-smoker John Steinbeck said, “I can start any time I want.”

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Originally published in
Blogcritics Magazine on January 6, 2009.

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