George Will

Ironies abound. The February expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program is supposed to be financed by increased tobacco taxes, so this health care depends on an ample and renewable supply of smokers. State governments, increasingly addicted to tobacco tax revenues, face delicate price calculations: They want to raise their regressive tobacco taxes (smokers are disproportionately low income and poorly educated) to just below where smokers are driven to quit.

Governments cannot loot tobacco companies that do not flourish. In a 1998 settlement, 46 states conspired to seize $206 billion from companies selling legal tobacco products made from a commodity subsidized by the governments that subsidize treatment of tobacco-related illnesses. The dubious premise of the settlement was that smoking costs governments substantial sums. Actually, tobacco is the most heavily taxed consumer good (Rhode Island's is $3.46 per pack) and the accurate actuarial assumptions of public and private pension plans are that premature deaths of smokers will save billions in payments.

In the early 1950s, the sponsor of anchorman John Cameron Swayze's "Camel News Caravan" on NBC television required him to have a lit cigarette constantly visible. Today smokers are pariahs in a country the Father of which was a tobacco farmer. Someday the ashtray may be as anachronistic as the spittoon, but fear of death may be a milder deterrent to smoking than is the fact that smoking is dumb and declasse. Dumb? Would you hire a smoker, who must be either weak-willed or impervious to evidence? Declasse? Twenty years ago, California cut smoking 17 percent with commercials such as: "I tried it twice and I, ah, got all red in the face and I couldn't inhale and I felt like a jerk and, ah, never tried it again, which is the same as what happened to me with sex."

Three decades ago, public outrage killed an automobile model (Ford's Pinto) whose design defects allegedly caused 59 deaths. Yet every year tobacco kills more Americans than did World War II -- more than AIDS, cocaine, heroin, alcohol, vehicular accidents, homicide and suicide combined.

In the time it takes to read this column, three Americans will die of smoking-related illnesses. If you tarry to savor the column's lovely prose, four will die, so read fast.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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