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Does the Truth Not Matter?

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Thank you, Philip Morris. The tobacco company has reminded us that today “the truth” doesn’t mean that which corresponds to reality. It means “that which furthers a political agenda.”

Philip Morris recently had a study done for the Czech Republic to answer the oft-made charge that smokers impose financial burdens on nonsmokers. Conducted by Arthur D. Little International, the study shows that smokers actually don’t impose burdens. They save the public money.

How could that be? If smokers die prematurely, much money that governments — meaning taxpayers — would have spent on them in their old age won’t have to be spent that way. The anti-smoking lobby seems to think that if people didn’t smoke they would live cost-free forever. That would be nice, but alas it isn’t so. As people get older they receive tax-financed pensions, medical care, nursing-home services, and so on. Needless to say, the deceased don’t require those things. The cost of whatever services smokers require because of their habit is less than the cost of the services they would have received had they lived longer lives.

That is all that the Philip Morris study says. The reaction has been enlightening. The anti-smoking lobby immediately jumped down the company’s throat. Besides the unsupported charge that the study constituted “bad economics,” most of the criticism focused on something other than whether the results are valid. According to the Associated Press, Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said the report promoted “a callous disregard for life.” John Connolly of the Action on Smoking and Health in Britain said, “The whole exercise is repellent and should be dismissed.” It is “a sort of extermination program for the newly retired,” according to the group.

Let’s grant, just for the sake of argument, that Philip Morris has a callous disregard for life and that even contemplating such a study is repellent. Are the results accurate? The anti-smoking lobby constantly laments that smokers impose burdens on everyone else through lost productivity and the use of medical services. Shouldn’t we find out whether it is true?

One suspects that the lobby wants to rig the game. They should be free to demonize smokers for harming society. But anyone who shows that their claim is bogus is a ghoul deserving exile.

The study did not neglect to account for the alleged health damage that smoking does to nonsmokers. But since, according to even the World Health Organization, the claims about second-hand smoke are based on junk science, this shows that Philip Morris bent over backwards to avoid bias.

The news accounts neglected to mention that a similar study in the United States came to the same conclusion. In the early 1990s, when Democrats ran both houses of Congress, the Congressional Budget Office was asked to calculate how much the cigarette tax should be raised to make smokers bear the full burden of their habit. The CBO concluded that the tax needed to be cut. (Regardless, there’s an easy way to keep smokers from imposing costs on others: get government out of medical care. Smokers, not the taxpayers, should be responsible for the consequences of their own habits.)

Clearly, there are things the anti-smoking lobby would prefer us not to know. Why? Because if we knew the truth the lobby would have a tougher time carrying out its program of social control. Connolly revealed his agenda when he offered his interpretation of what Philip Morris was really telling the Czechs: “Look, we can help you deal with those expensive old people, so why don’t you go easy on controlling smoking?” Truth for him is what advances his goal of “controlling smoking.”

Except that it’s not smoking that is controlled by the government programs he favors. It’s people. Some people want to smoke so much that they willingly take the risks. (Studies show that they overestimate the risks.) In a free society they should be free to do so. Fortunately, the Czech people shed a system that controlled people for the “common good.” It was called communism.

America avoided communism, but our Jeffersonian heritage doesn’t stop myriad interest groups from lobbying the government to control us. The truth will indeed set you free.

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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.