Blowing Smoke

by J.D. Tuccille

I’m not much of a smoker -- not of anything that’s going to be affected by the current prohibitionist frenzy, anyway. I do bum an occasional cigarette when I’m downing a glass of whiskey; I’m a bourbon drinker, and cigarettes seem a natural compliment. Likewise, I’ve recently developed a taste for good cigars, though I always make sure that somebody knowledgeable is present to save me from embarrassment. But cigars seem immune from the wrath of the prohibitionists -- probably for the same reason that gun control freaks rarely seem to target $5,000 European shotguns. Still, there’s something about the anti-tobacco frenzy that sticks in my craw. Something that smells worse than a deodorant-phobic health nazi.

Prohibitionism and puritanism have been unholy counterparts to Americans’ love of liberty since the days of Cotton Mather. Like a nagging wife, prohibitionists have followed us through good times and bad, casting a slight pall over every opportunity for pleasure. They’ve smashed booze bottles, jailed dope dealers, turned thumbs-down on racy films, and run the best cathouses out of town. We’ve been fortunate that traditionally, the puritan impulse, as unsavory as it is, has been balanced by the simple desires for freedom and pleasure. You might convince Americans to try on the sackcloth and ashes, but eventually they want to accessorize. But now the puritans have found a new ally; rather than place all their bets on the impulse for masochism, the tobacco prohibitionists are appealing to greed.

And the appeal is working. If you want proof, watch the gleeful frenzy in the courts as state attorneys-general, smoking “victims,” and predatory lawyers join the game of kill-the-carrier with smokers and tobacco companies as “it.” Mind your fingers and toes or you might lose ‘em in the scrum. The game is already paying off: The Liggett Group is the first to settle -- coughing up extortion money that may be worth $2 billion -- and now the lynch mob smells blood. Yep, the prohibitionists reeled ‘em in, all right. People who might have resisted out-and-out calls for a ban are happy to join in a mugging to (in CNN’s words) “repay ... Medicaid bills for treatment of smoking-related illnesses.”

Now, Medicaid bills are an awfully thin cover. The Cato Institute has been in the forefront of groups pointing out that smokers are already taxed well in excess of any additional health-related costs they may impose on public coffers, private coffers, or the stray, outstretched hand. In a study Cato cites, average total cigarette taxes come out to $0.50 per pack, while “spillover” costs (which don’t all come out of public funds, anyway) add up to $0.33 per pack. But any excuse is a good excuse when the zeros start adding up behind a dollar sign.

Of course, tobacco companies aren’t necessarily helmed by saints, and they’ve apparently buried some unfriendly research results rather deeply along the way, but so what? The oldest of my relatives, almost all smokers, never in their lives considered a Camel as a handy stand-in for a bowl of wheatgerm. Everybody knew that sucking-in hot carbon particles meant fewer years on ol’ planet Earth. They smoked not for health, but for the same reason that motivates me to smoke grass and drink bourbon, a reason that the prohibitionists can never accept as legitimate: Pure pleasure. Ooooh, “pleasure;” there’s the word that really gets the puritans quivering, a concept so evil that it sends them scrambling for allies of convenience.

And now that puritanism and greed have found themselves in an unholy, but profitable union, there’s no stepping back from the brink. Mayor Tom Menino of Boston (a true heir to the parade of nasty and meddling swine who have presided over the city, but without the panache or intelligibility of his predecessors -- enunciate, Tom, enunciate) has already set his sites on gun manufacturers. He’ll let us know what “costs” he wants to recoup from those forces of evil as soon as he settles on a deficit for next year’s municipal budget. Distillers and brewers can’t be far behind, and it’s only a matter of time before Ralph Nader decides that Harley Davidson is a threat to the nation’s health and finances.

Yup, sniff, there’s that stink again. It’s the stench of prohibitionists, and they’ve snuck in the back door. They’ve set off a feeding frenzy that whole industries may not survive -- which, of course, is the point. The one weapon that they’ve left us is the one we’ve always used when they’ve come rooting around: Defiance. So light ‘em up proudly and often, light ‘em up publicly, and when that inevitable, outraged matron demands an end to your pleasure, send a cloud of beautiful blue smoke rolling into her face.

We’ll stop when they do.

From the Notebook

The Clinton administration admits that it requested, and then squirreled away some 330 FBI files on notable Republicans linked to Presidents Reagan and Bush. The White House claims it was “an innocent bureaucratic mistake.” Uh huh. A mistake like the Clipper chip, and the anti-terrorism bill, and Hazel O’Leary’s enemies list, and the “assault weapons” ban ...

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.

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