Posted on June 20, 1994 in Washington Watch

Foreign visitors to the U.S. beware: there is a war which is being successfully waged by all levels of the U.S. government with strong support from a powerful and well-organized lobby. It is the war against smoking.

This is a relentless campaign, and it has succeeded on a number of fronts, imposing high taxes on cigarettes and prohibiting smoking in public buildings in most of the 50 states.

The $48 billion per year tobacco industry is already one of the most heavily taxed industries in this country, accounting for nearly $15 billion per year in taxes that average almost 30 cents per pack. And with new taxes and more restrictions under consideration and likely to be approved, the tobacco industry, which employs almost 50,000 U.S. workers, is under intense pressure.

Already, nine states have completely prohibited smoking in all public buildings. Thirty-five other states have imposed severe restrictions on smoking in public buildings. It is a common sight in most U.S. cities to see small groups of smokers standing outside their office buildings – even in freezing midwinter weather – because that is the only place where they are allowed to smoke. And Congress is currently debating a law which, if passed, would ban smoking in all buildings in the U.S. which are regularly occupied by 10 or more people per day.

All U.S. airlines, most domestic rail lines, and a growing number of U.S. businesses (most recently all McDonald’s restaurants) have also banned smoking. Several local governments have taken their anti-smoking crusade even farther by outlawing smoking even at outdoor gatherings. And the state of California has employed the draconian measure of raising a special tax in cigarettes which goes exclusively to pay for anti-smoking advertising.

Thirty-four of the fifty states already tax cigarettes in excess of 20 cents per pack. Michigan leads the nation with a 75 cent-per-pack tax, the proceeds of which has allowed the state to eliminate property taxes as the basic support for the state’s public education system.

President Clinton has proposed an increase in the current 25 cent per pack national tax on cigarettes to help pay for his national health care program. One Congressional committee has set this level at $1.25 per pack. Given the strong and intolerant anti-smoking sentiment that exists in the U.S. today, there is little opposition so far against those proposed tax increases.

The danger, of course, is that if these extremely high taxes succeed in reducing cigarette smoking then not only will a powerful U.S. industry collapse, but local, state and federal governments will have to find alternative sources of funding to support costly government programs.

And the host of restrictions on the tobacco industry are growing. Beginning in 1964, the government mandated that all cigarette packs must contain a printed warning about the health risks of smoking. In 1971, tobacco advertising on television and radio was banned. And now there is increasing pressure to place further restrictions on the sale of cigarettes, due in large measure to controversial reports that smoking is health hazard to non-smokers.

While there is little debate about the negative affect of tobacco on health, there is some concern that the reports on which the campaign against smoking is based are exaggerated. No one disputes that there is a dramatic rise in lung cancer and cardio-vascular disease among smokers, accounting for roughly 300,000 deaths per year. But there is a debate over whether smoking is the sole cause of these deaths.

The big push to ban smoking in public buildings came after a government report was issued stating that 3,000 deaths (some say 9,000) per year are due to second-hand smoke, i.e., smoke inhaled by non-smokers who breathe in the smoke exhaled by smokers. This report caused panic in some and ignited renewed furor among the anti-smoking brigades. But a study released by the Congressional Research Service contradicted the findings of the first government study, noting that “statistical evidence does not appear to support a conclusion that there are substantial health affects from such passive smoking.”

Nevertheless, the crusade against smoking continues.

Once, a powerful lobby backed a strong group of Congressmen from the U.S.’ six tobacco producing states to stop or at least slow the anti-smoking crusaders; but the tobacco lobby is no longer able to stem the tide of increased taxes and restrictions on tobacco use. Congressmen from to tobacco states were recently able to defeat proposed legislation that would have classified tobacco as a “drug” (thereby severely restricting its use) by threatening, as a bloc, to vote against the President’s health care bill if the anti-smoking bill was passed. But such victories have been few, and there may not be many more of them.

Now the tobacco industry is beginning to fight back. They are spending millions in advertising to oppose the increasing restrictions, they are donating millions to Congressional campaigns and to both political parties, and they are regularly suing both federal and state governments over laws which the industry feels are discriminatory and based upon false accusations.

What is most disturbing about this crusade is the intolerance and hostility that has accompanied it. One Congressman from a tobacco-growing state noted that “tobacco users have been shamed into feeling like social pariahs. It’s been a free shot for any politician to be a demagogue on this issue.”

Smokers report being accosted by non-smokers in buildings and even on the street. And some sociologists that the increase in smoking among the young is, in fact, an act of rebellion – an expression of anger and nonconformism by deliberately doing something that they know society has rejected as bad.

There is in the anti-smoking crusade a dynamic similar to the attitudes that developed during the “prohibition” movement against alcohol in 1930’s – a public hysteria, an intolerance, end even a sense of moral superiority that accompanies the movement that ultimately denies any rights to those who disagree.

The other side of the aggressive intolerance of non-smokers is the passivity and near shame of smokers. As the anti-smoking campaign grows in intensity, those who smoke worriedly look on – huddled in small groups outside of their buildings, or closeted in their own private offices or homes (places where smoking may also soon be banned).

I have found that all of these developments, though terribly confusing and even disturbing to foreign visitors in the U.S., seem commonplace to U.S. citizens. There is an expression used in the study of cultural anthropology that “the fish doesn’t know it’s wet” – meaning that if you’re always in one place, you are not as aware of its environment as you would be if you were in one place and then shifted to a new environment.

I am a cigar smoker and to deal with this war, I have developed my own strategy. I have rebelled and have declared my office a “liberated zone.” My action, I have discovered is especially comforting to the many smoking visitors I have from the Arab world. After being accosted in office after office during their visits to the U.S. – I offer an oasis of freedom.

If Congress passes this proposed legislation that will ban smoking in all buildings – I may lose my “zone.” My Arab visitors and I will then have to choose – either to smoke outside (if even that will be permitted), or to quit.

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