It occurred to me recently that if America’s position on tobacco were to be represented graphically, it would look like a pretzel on acid.
I say this because I find myself smiling cynically every time another public figure expresses outrage over something a tobacco company has done. In particular, I find myself grinning at the latest brouhaha that developed when one of our fine tobacco companies recently tried to convince an Eastern European country that they were actually some positive benefits to their product. Like, for instance, early death that keeps down all those pesky health care costs incurred when your population is allowed to actually age.
Aside from wishing I could have a recording of the meeting where that particular PR concept was advanced and approved, I wish I could also come to some understanding of America’s totally schizophrenic relationship with this product and its producers.
We have turned ourselves inside out in an effort to not ban the product while at the same time condemning it roundly for its obvious deadliness. We allow tobacco companies to continue to operate legally, growing, packaging, and selling their product. Then we demand that in return, they must agree not to advertise on TV or radio or near schools or near children. They must not only not advertise in most public settings, they must in fact agree that whatever advertising they do for their product is balanced by advertising against it. Hence those humorous warnings on the sides of cigarette packs. Why not just a plain skull and crossbones?
So they are allowed to continue to produce and market their product but must do so with their heads bowed and wearing sackcloth. I guess that their bowed heads help to hide their big grins as they continue to post record profits each year. After all, Third World countries usually have big populations who have so many ways of dying young that smoking hardly seems like a potent threat to their longevity.
I bet that if we showed up at some cocoa plantation in the wilds of Columbia or some hydroponics pot farm in the Mat-Su Valley and offered them the same deal – advertise against your product and we let you grow and market it legally – the growers would jump at the chance.
So the question is, why is America so hesitant to outlaw tobacco? We know it’s bad. Even the companies now admit that. Heck, they even use its killer aspects as a selling point. We know it’s addictive. We know it’s deadly health effects spread far beyond the people actually dragging on a butt and extend to the people with the misfortune of being in the same room with them.
We know all this with a lot more surety and scientific facts than we have for a lot of other drugs that we have declared illegal. Yet we can’t bring ourselves to take that final step. We can’t bring ourselves to say it’s a killer that should be outlawed. It’s a drug that should be right up there with cocaine and alcohol as addictive and destructive.
We not only allow it to be grown, we watch as it is marketed to countries with already overwhelming health problems. We watch as multinational companies grow death on American farms and then export that death to people with no viable defense against it.
On some days I think to myself that smoking is a personal, if ultimately pretty dumb, choice. I tell myself that when you live in a country with rampant AIDS, constant “ethnic cleansing”, non-existent sanitation and no housing, then maybe cigarettes don’t seem so high on the list of bad things in your life.
On other days, I think we should either declare tobacco the drug it is and regulate it the same way we regulate most other addictive drugs or we should get off their backs and let them advertise their legal product for sale.
A pretzel on acid is not a pretty sight. Neither is our national tobacco policy.