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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

An Effective Approach to Tobacco Regulation

Dr. C. Everett Koop '37 said last week that America's tobacco companies are "equally evil" as the sellers of illegal drugs, and that they're the "real terrorists" in our world. With all possible respect to the former surgeon general, whom I have met and admire tremendously, I think his (and everybody else's) insistence on blaming the tobacco companies for the epidemic of cigarette smoking is, these days, illogical and unproductive.

Allow me to explain. Once upon a time, tobacco companies were able to hide the dangers of cigarettes from an unsuspecting public; to their discredit, they did so. But today, even with the dangers universally known, cigarettes are still popular. Tobacco remains a legal product in the United States and every other country. No matter who supplies the tobacco or how they sell it, Americans will smoke it and die just the same. Driving today's tobacco companies out of business will do nothing to change our plight unless the legality of tobacco and consumer demand for it are strongly challenged.

Lately, it has become fashionable to sue the corporations that sell tobacco in America's courtrooms, often under the loopiest of guises -- as if customers somehow had not heard of the link to cancer discovered some 50 years ago. People like to smoke (and chew) tobacco; sadly, it often kills them. Nothing about that is unexpected, nor is it illegal. The whole trend toward "tobacco settlements," the dubious lining of attorney pockets and the nuzzling of the public purse to the tainted money, offers little hope of actually freeing the world's people from their awful nicotine addictions.

We ought to regulate tobacco as we do other drugs through the FDA, a proposition I feel sure Dr. Koop would support. Why, then, is there so little criticism of our legislators, who have the power to make that change? Partially, it's because of the powerful tobacco lobby. But more likely, Americans are not ready to support the switch. We want to have our cake and eat it, too; to keep cigarettes legal, then sue tobacco producers for hundreds of billions of dollars as if they perpetrated some crime. All I would suggest is that we approach the anti-smoking effort with a bit more honesty and tact; the present way is getting mighty expensive.

While about 430,000 Americans' deaths are hastened each year by smoking cigarettes, our only response has been lawsuits, shortsighted efforts at moralizing with a legal business. In the anti-smoking effort, we have used the unpredictable mandate of juries rather than the public forum, where this issue belongs. These lawsuits are not the best way to end smoking; instead, they are dog-and-pony-shows driven by lawyers' greed.

One fine example of this is Mr. Mike Cerisi, a lawyer from my home state. Mr. Cerisi was so proud of the tobacco settlement he arranged back in Minnesota that he tried to parlay his "victory" into a seat in the U.S. Senate. But did his template for attacking Big Tobacco (namely, draining their bank accounts) really benefit anyone? Answer: the tobacco companies settled precisely because the arrangement whereby they pay the public ensures that cigarettes will be a protected industry for decades to come. What legislator would want to interfere with the stream of cash flowing into public coffers every year? Meanwhile, the lawyers made off like bandits: Cerisi and his firm billed my state for $550 million! In Mississippi and Florida, the legal fees were even ghastlier.

To top it off, the central premise of many of these states' lawsuits -- that Medicare costs for smokers should be reimbursed by Big Tobacco -- is apparently based on the Theory of Non-Smoker Immortality. Does dying of lung cancer cost more than the lengthier, perhaps extended geriatric care these people would have otherwise required? In the cold monetary terms of figuring out actual damages, any economics student can tell you that retirement is a time of financial loss. So, does dying at 65 cost the public more than dying at 85? My guess, in pure financial terms, is "certainly not." That is, from a health care and social service cost perspective, smoking may actually save us money.

We are casting stones at the suppliers of our national addictions as if, by destroying them, our demons will leave us. But one only need see the pointless devastation we've inflicted on Columbian farmers to understand that attacking the supplier is futile if the product is in demand. The U.S. states have settled for around $300 billion with tobacco companies. Yet, aside from some new teen anti-smoking advertisements, the deal entails leaving Big Tobacco functionally unscathed, just when it ought to be knocked out of its "legal business" shelter.

I think we must pursue the regulation of tobacco earnestly. If you've seen "The Fifth Element" with Bruce Willis, you know what I'm talking about. Our anti-gravity cars will have no ashtrays; Russian models will be our only companions. Our cigarettes will be tiny nicotine fixes to aid our grim lives, facing the time-traveling aliens. Dr. Koop, we will need you more than ever.