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July 1998: Five Lies about Tobacco; The Tobacco Bill Wasn't about Kids

July 1, 1998

On June 17, 43 Republicans and 3 Democrats in the U.S. Senate voted to kill a bill that would have raised taxes on cigarettes by $1.10 per pack and restricted cigarette advertising.

two tumblers with liquor and a lit cigarrette

On June 17, 43 Republicans and 3 Democrats in the U.S. Senate voted to kill a bill that would have raised taxes on cigarettes by $1.10 per pack and restricted cigarette advertising. That this was a major victory for the tobacco industry has been widely reported. Less widely noted, however, is the victory for truth and freedom against the corrupt tactic of the Big Lie.

Smokers Pay Their Way

The first lie of the anti-tobacco campaign is that smokers impose a burden on the rest of society by not paying the full cost of their medical care and social insurance benefits. The image often evoked is of an indigent retiree suffering from lung cancer relying on Medicaid to pay for surgery or chemotherapy. But that image is incomplete.

To determine whether smoking increases or decreases a person's burden on society, we need to subtract from a smoker's lifetime costs to society the amount that would have been spent if he or she had never smoked. Such a calculation reveals that smokers, by dying younger than nonsmokers, actually save society billions of dollars in nursing home, Medicaid, Social Security, and private pension payments. Harvard law and economics professor Kip Viscusi estimates that smokers actually save society about $0.32 per pack of cigarettes smoked.

Smokers also pay billions of dollars each year in taxes, a forced "contribution" that the politicians curiously fail to mention when blasting smokers. Federal, state, and local cigarette taxes amounted to $15 billion in 1994, about $0.58 per pack. When added to the lower spending on medical care and social insurance, the total net savings to society is $0.90 per pack.

Secondhand Junk Science

The second lie is that more regulation and higher taxes are justified because secondhand smoke hurts nonsmokers. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) claim that secondhand smoke causes 3,000 cancer deaths a year in the U.S. is often cited. Less often mentioned, however, is the World Health Organization's finding that the risk is "either non-existent or too small to be measured at any meaningful level." Can we trust EPA's "science"?

EPA had to twist and torture its data to find a public health risk from secondhand smoke. Its analysis pools the results of eleven different studies, ten of which showed no statistically significant effect of secondhand smoke. EPA excluded altogether a major recent study that found no effect. Even the pooled results were not significant at EPA's usually required 95 percent confidence interval, so the agency arbitrarily dropped its requirement to 90 percent.

EPA's leadership is currently under fire by its own scientists for suppressing research that does not support a political agenda calling for more regulation and more spending on public health programs. Critiques of EPA calculations of the costs and benefits of the Great Lakes Initiative and new air quality standards, and the health effects of radon and dioxin, have exposed a cavalier disregard for sound science, independent peer review, and accurate reporting of research results.

Smokers Know the Risk

The anti-smoking lobby alleges that millions of us have been fooled into overlooking or minimizing the health hazards of smoking. Surveys show, however, that most smokers actually overestimate the risk to their health posed by smoking. The reason tobacco companies so rarely lose in court is because they can easily show that the plaintiffs were aware of the health risks associated with smoking but chose to continue smoking anyway.

If cigarette executives in fact crossed the line between legitimate product promotion and fraud, they can and should be punished under existing laws. New legislation isn't required. Either way, the evidence suggests the public wasn't fooled.

Do smokers keep smoking because they are hopelessly addicted to nicotine? Hardly. Twenty-five million people in the U.S. have quit smoking, and devices to help smokers stop--filters, gum, pills, patches, and even a nicotine-laced soft drink--crowd the market. Economists Gary Becker and Michael Grossman estimate that for every 10 percent increase in cigarette taxes, cigarette consumption eventually falls by 8 percent. Such a relationship would not exist if smokers were "hooked for life."

Smoking in Moderation

A fourth lie is that even moderate smoking is deadly. Several experts (including two who are very anti-smoking) have told me that smoking fewer than seven cigarettes a day does not raise a smoker's risk of lung cancer. When have you ever seen that fact reported in a newspaper or admitted by a public health official?

Exposure to small amounts of a toxic substance is often benign because the human body has a natural ability to repair itself. Our bodies shed and create anew millions of cells every day, in the process repairing much of the damage done by exposure to toxins and other kinds of wear and tear. The result is thresholds of exposure to potentially harmful substances below which there is no irreversible damage.

The fact that smoking in moderation has few, if any, adverse health effects has astounding importance in the tobacco debate. Virtually any product (water, salt, and vitamins come to mind), if used in excess, is a health hazard. The rule applied to virtually all consumer products, except tobacco, is that the consumer assumes the duty to use a product responsibly. Applying the rule to smoking would seem to bring a quick end to most lawsuits against tobacco companies.

It Isn't about Kids

Finally, the biggest lie of all is that the tobacco bill was about saving our children from the health risks of tobacco. If that was really its purpose, the bill would have concentrated on enforcing current laws against juvenile smoking. As Patrick Buchanan correctly asks, "How does robbing a working-class couple of $1,200 a year keep teenagers from smoking?" Where is the logic in increasing taxes on all buyers of a legal product in order to discourage purchases by a tiny minority?

The evidence that tobacco companies target teenagers is hardly convincing. Internal memos and letters disclosed during litigation show that marketing to kids was discussed, but not that the tactic was adopted as corporate policy. The tobacco industry directly employs some 400,000 people: how many of the millions of internal memos they produce each year reflect or influence official company policies?

For the lawyers who filed lawsuits against tobacco companies, the real motivation was not children's health, but $50 billion or more in contingency fees. This windfall is so huge it constitutes evidence of corruption or gross incompetence by the (largely Democratic) state attorneys general who struck those deals.

For President Clinton, the tobacco bill offered $65 billion a year for new social programs and a way to tar Republicans with the bogus "anti-kids" label. For Sen. John McCain and other liberal Republicans, the bill eventually became a way to end the marriage penalty in the income tax code and extend a tax deduction to the self-employed.

Those who opposed the tobacco bill were also unconcerned about its effects on kids. Republicans, after nearly two years of joining in the tobacco-bashing festivities, reversed course to pacify their party's conservative wing and to distinguish themselves from tax-and-spend Democrats. Conservative pundits opposed the bill because they feared it would lead to persecution of consumers of alcohol, caffeine, and fast foods, and users of guns, automobiles, and fill-in-the-blank. The tobacco industry fought the bill simply to avoid extinction.

It's about Freedom

My view of the attack on the tobacco industry is unchanged from a year ago, when I last wrote about this issue in The Heartlander. The campaign against tobacco is less about public health than it is about lawyers failing to act as true officers of the courts; politicians and bureaucrats seeking power and prestige at the expense of civil and economic liberties; and the steady deterioration of personal responsibility as a standard of law and private morality. At its root, it is all about freedom.

We will soon have a good test of whether the war on tobacco really is about kids. House Republicans are drafting a no-new-taxes tobacco bill that focuses on reducing youth smoking, not raising money for unrelated causes or pushing the tobacco industry into bankruptcy. Tobacco's critics are voicing their opposition even before the bill has been submitted, and President Clinton has signaled he will probably veto it if it reaches his desk.

So much for the kids.


Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute.

Joseph Bast is a Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute. He cofounded Heartland in 1984, serving as executive director then as president & CEO until January 2018. His research and writing focuses on climate change and energy policy. @JosephLBast