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Smoke If You Want, and Pay for It

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Tobacco has become a four-letter word. The cigarette companies are getting it from all sides. The federal Food and Drug Administration wants to regulate tobacco as a drug. State governments are suing to recover Medicare money spent on elderly people with tobacco-related illnesses. Heirs of long-time smokers are suing for wrongful death. It’s not a happy time in the business.

It’s so bad that the companies are negotiating settlements with several states; they are willing to pay billions of dollars now in exchange for immunity from future suits. That was all complicated recently when R.J. Reynolds prevailed in a private suit in Florida.

The great tobacco controversy shows how far we have come from being a society of self-responsible people. It also shows how we fail to think in common-sense terms. To begin with, no one is forced to take up smoking. It’s a choice. Usually the first smoke is unpleasant. If there’s any force involved, it’s a person’s forcing himself to try the second cigarette. It’s a little absurd for someone who has smoked 30 or 40 years to sue a tobacco company. Since the 1960s, cigarette packages have warned that smoking may be a health hazard. The term “coffin nail” was coined to derogate cigarettes in the 19th century. In 1607 King James I said tobacco was “noxious to the lung.” That seems like sufficient notice that smoking entails some risk.

It is true that the tobacco companies denied the danger. Scientific evidence for the cause of disease can be tricky, especially early on. Correlation is not causation. But even if we assume the worst about the companies, they were not the only source of information, as we’ve seen. In recent years, smokers have tended to overrate the health risk of cigarettes. So people have known the risks and yet have still chosen to smoke.

Ah, but did they choose? Weren’t they addicted to nicotine by the scoundrels in the tobacco business? Here we get into important semantic issues. It may be easy to form a habit of smoking cigarettes, but that is not the same thing as addiction. In the relationship between a person and a cigarette, the active ingredient is the person. You habituate yourself to smoking cigarettes. They do not addict you. There’s a big difference.

Moreover, people quit smoking all the time, often without any help whatsoever. There are more ex-smokers than smokers walking around. It may be hard to stop but it isn’t impossible. People choose to start smoking. People choose to keep smoking. When it’s important enough to them, people choose to stop smoking.

The private suits against the tobacco companies are another sad mark of our era: when something goes wrong, sue someone.

The Medicare suits are even more ludicrous. The theory is that the ailments suffered by elderly smokers drain the states’ Medicare coffers. So the deep-pocketed tobacco companies should pay. What a mess of fallacy!

Why should the companies pay? When people get heart disease, states don’t sue beef cattle farmers or meat packers. It is more than likely that people who die prematurely from smoking save the taxpayers money. Those people will not linger for years in costly nursing homes or get far more costly diseases like Alzheimer’s. Maybe the tobacco companies should get bonuses.

The Congressional Budget Office a few years ago studied the question of how high the cigarette tax should be raised to offset the medical costs allegedly imposed on society by smokers. The findings were stunning: to truly reflect those costs, said the CBO, the tax would have to be cut .

The best way to clear up the cost problem is to abolish Medicare and other forced taxpayer-funded medical care. Let people buy health insurance and pay any added premium associated with smoking. That policy would be most suitable for a free society. As the old Spanish proverb had it: Take what you want, and pay for it.

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Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.