Many Americans believe that federal and state governments are in the business of protecting us from harm. Certainly, it can be easily argued that a valiant effort is made to protect us from foreign and domestic aggression – even when our President does his best daily to make that effort more difficult by insulting and angering our allies and foes alike. It would be harder to argue that agencies like the FDA and the DEA really work in the best interest of Americans.
On two recent occasions I had the pleasure of passing through Richmond, Virginia on I-95 and witnessed the obelisk of death that sits right on the highway outside the Phillip Morris Corporation. I find it intriguing and somewhat disgusting that a corporation that produces a product that is designed to purposely create addiction and often results in death is not only allowed to exist, but celebrates itself to the passing masses on the highway.
The Obelisk of Death
Lest the reader paint this as the ravings of a liberal do-gooder or an anti-smoking fanatic, I must offer this disclaimer. I was a two-pack a day smoker for twenty years. I started smoking when I was ten and quit when Eileen was pregnant with our first child. After twenty years of addiction, which included such desperate acts as pulling cigarette butts out of the ashtray straightening them out to get at least a couple of drags, late at night when I had run out and all the stores were closed, I was determined that I would not pollute my child’s home and pass on the poor example of this filthy and unhealthy habit.
When I see a smoker, I do not feel contempt or anger. I understand what the pull is and how strong it is. I remember how hard it was to quit cold turkey and how badly I wanted – and needed a cigarette. I fortunately won that battle. Many do not. I still to this day dream that I am a smoker who can quit at any time.
What angers me now is the knowledge that I did not have in 1985. I, and most others, were not aware that big tobacco was purposely studying the science of addiction and producing a product that contained just the right chemicals to hook you and keep their hooks in you for the long haul stealing your money and your life.
How does someone sleep at night fully cognizant that what they do for a living kills people on a regular basis. Not by accident but by design. Are there others who make a product(s) that also kills. You could argue that gun and ammunition makers produce a killer product as well. The opposite side of that argument would be that there are legitimate purposes for weapons and ammunition. Unfortunately, people need to protect themselves from those who would do them harm whether that means on a local scale for police officers and the homeowner who must protect his family and property, or on a larger scale as countries face the challenge from forces that would seek to harm their people. It would be great if we lived in a utopia where no weapons were needed. We do not and never will. Should there be limits regarding who can have a gun and what kind of gun they can have – yes. Limits are absolutely necessary.
Some would argue that we allow alcohol products to be produced and sold and they cause death as well. That is like comparing Black Sabbath to James Taylor. Alcoholic beverages are primarily meant to enjoy for their taste and to compliment food. A person enjoying a good cabernet, or a craft beer, can regularly enjoy one or two alone or with dinner several times a week or month with little or no dramatic effects on their health. In fact, it has been shown that a regular glass of red wine actually improves heart health. It has been suggested that red wine is one of the contributing factors in the difference in the occurrence of heart disease among the French as opposed to Americans.
I would be naive to ignore the fact that many use alcohol to alter their state of mind. Altering the state of mind is actually a natural need for humans. Humans are not the only species that seek mind altering substances. Psycho-pharmacologists studying this phenomenon have identified many animals and insects to who also seek substances that alter the mind. Every morning as millions of humans awake to face the day and search out that cup of coffee, they are altering the brain to produce certain effects such as alertness and focus. Those who are harmed by alcohol are often predisposed as a condition of disease. Those who produce tobacco products know for a fact that the vast majority of the users of their product will not enhance a pre-existing disease, but will cause the disease for the sake of profit.
Data would suggest that the harmful effects of tobacco use or second-hand smoke far outweigh the harmful effects of alcohol especially given normal everyday use. Nearly 500,000 people die from tobacco use each year. It is the number one cause of preventable death each year. That is 1300 people daily. 41,000 people die from exposure to second-hand death each year. These are the innocent children and others who live and work around the addicted. By comparison, 88,000 people die from the abuse of alcohol each year. That is approximately fifteen percent of those who die from tobacco use. What percentage of that 88,000 are pre-disposed to alcohol abuse or addiction that is not purposely designed by the manufacturers.
In a recent editorial George Will opined that there will never be meaningful federal or state control of tobacco producers due to simple economics. Take my grand state of Connecticut. The cigarette tax in Connecticut is over four dollars a pack. Let’s ignore why this is poor economic policy and costs the state revenue each year. The fact is that no matter what the state pays in health costs associated with smoking, it is not likely to surpass the income that state takes in for cigarette taxes. Cigarettes are a money-maker for states who find themselves battling shrinking budgets. So what our citizens are dying from this product – death supports the budget!
And let’s not get started on the control of marijuana. No. Let’s get started. The DEA spends billions each year controlling the illegal production and sale of marijuana. 88,000 people are arrested each year for possession of drugs including marijuana. On any given day 130,000 people, predominantly Black and Hispanic sit in prison for simple drug possession, many of them for possession of marijuana. There is a light at the end of that tunnel. Twenty-two states have decriminalized the possession of marijuana and eliminated jail time. Several states have legalized the possession and use of marijuana and several others have at least recognized the benefits of medical marijuana and at least legalized medical usage. Despite the overwhelming support for legalization, the federal government continues to spend billions on criminalization and control of the substance. All this despite the fact that no one has been able to identify more than two – yes two – cases of a death that can be attributed solely to the use of marijuana.
There are several other comparisons. Pharmaceutical companies sometimes produce products that are eventually harmful and are aware of the harmful effects while still selling the product. This is disgraceful and those who are identified should go to jail. They also produce many drugs that people need to stay alive. We can decide if there is a fair trade-off in this case. More times than not the secondary goal is to provide assistance to sick people. Of course, the primary goal is to profit. Should there be better control of this industry. Yes. Could wee argue to shut it down. Of course not.
All the time we are allowing an industry that sells death as a product to continue and flourish. The federal courts can impose as much of a financial penalty as it wants on this industry. It is spitting into the ocean. Their profits continue at record rates, and as long as that exists, that will pay their death tax. If we are going to allow this to continue, and I do not foresee any change any time soon, then at least stop being hypocritical about marijuana and alcohol. How many people are there out there right now strenuously arguing that we must not legalize the “evil weed”, while they hold a lit cigarette in their hand and slowly kill themselves and a few of the people around them. Sleep well tonight executives and workers of the major tobacco companies. Our government will protect us.