Of Nicotine and the GOP

by Matt Nisbet | 5/24/96 5:00am

As graduation nears, and I head out into the real world, I dream of a tobacco-free society and a different Republican party. The relation between the two goals is closer than you might imagine.

For me, it starts at a personal level. I came into the world the same year my great-grandfather died of lung cancer. My mother used to smoke, and my father still smokes more than two packs a day. I also grew up a Republican. My childhood idols were Larry, Magic, Reagan, Alex P. Keaton and Robert Bork. And so with my education in government and environmental studies, I've been made aware of the conflict between my desire to witness the end of cigarettes and my partisan relation to the GOP. Let me state that last sentence in a different light. The demise of the tobacco industry seems to be in step with the downfall of the Republican party.

The evidence against smoking as a severe health risk is more incriminating than anything the OJ prosecution and media could put together. A recent article by Mother Jones magazine summarizes the case against tobacco. Every cigarette costs smokers five to 20 minutes of life. Smoking is the underlying cause in one of every five deaths per year and kills 17 times more people a year than are victims of homicide or 50 times more people a year than die from illegal drugs.

Secondhand smoke plays a role in 55,000 annual deaths from heart disease, lung cancer or other cancers. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Research Council findings show that exposure to secondhand smoke can increase a nonsmoker's chance of lung cancer by 30 percent.

With such a powerful indictment against tobacco, it never ceases to amaze me that more citizens are not outraged at the epidemic of harmful drug abuse that cigarette represent. The Food and Drug Administration is on the verge of the long overdue action of classifying the nicotine in cigarettes as a controlled substance. This would give government tighter control over the marketing, sale, and manufacture of cigarette, and is viewed by many as the first step towards a smoke-free society. But, the Republican masterminds in Congress and the Senate have plans to eliminate the FDA and turn control over to a private regulatory body. The proposal is just a larger part of a GOP plan to eliminate the EPA, OTA, OSHA and roll back 20 years of environmental and safety regulation designed to protect the American citizenry.

The motivations of Republican congressmen ride the tide of huge lobbying efforts and sums of money from various polluting and health endangering industries that outspend public interest lobbying. GOP, grand old party of the people, we hardly knew ye.

You would think that the religious right would jump on the anti-tobacco support wagon. A recent study published in the Journal of Family Practice on pregnancy and smoking, estimates that smoking causes between 19,000 and 141,000 "spontaneous abortions" or miscarriages per year. Yet not a single staunch pro-life, religious right backed member of Congress has proposed strong anti-smoking regulation. The political dilemma for right-wing Republicans is obvious. To back an anti-tobacco measure could be viewed as a liberal measure, or at least a partnership with the president. It would also anger constituents of core bible-belt states that have historic relationships with tobacco production.

The disturbing aspect of the recent Republican revolution towards deregulation of business and dismembering of environmental laws is that the party strays further from the interests of the ordinary citizen. To people on the streets, cleaning up hazardous waste, ensuring a clean water supply and protecting society against burdensome health costs associated with industry products are all consensual issues that marshal support.

So as a Republican viewing the party of my future, I am tempted to go to my high school history book and turn back 200 pages to the beginning of the century when Teddy Roosevelt's brand of progressive Republicanism shaped the GOP.

To capture the electorate and to be a responsive party to the people, today's GOP needs to take a stride towards the progressive. Assessment, evaluation and innovation in environmental legislation instead of complete erasure.

Reform of elections and campaign finance to keep the privileged position of business at a minimum. An end to corporate welfare and polluter pork.

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