Surgeon General Blows Same Old Smoke

Published June 1, 2004

On May 27, Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona released a new report on the health effects of cigarette smoking. As has been true of every Surgeon General’s report in recent memory, Carmona’s claims smoking is “even worse” for smokers than previously thought. “The toxins from cigarette smoke go to everywhere the blood flows,” he told reporters.

As far as news goes, this is about as controversial as planes landing safely at O’Hare International Airport. Everyone knows smoking is bad for you. Billions of dollars are spent each year–paid by smokers themselves through cigarette taxes and the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA)–telling us how bad smoking is. Far from ignoring these warnings, surveys show smokers actually over-estimate the odds that smoking will harm their health.

The Surgeon General has never been above joining the hype of the anti-tobacco movement. Its claim that smoking causes 420,000 deaths a year is now a decade old, yet during that decade we’ve learned the original estimate was exaggerated by using a “control” group much healthier than the general publication. We also know genetics and obesity account for more heart disease and many more cancer deaths than previously supposed. Why do the anti-smoking alarmists never lower their estimates of smoking’s toll? You can die only once.

“The dose makes the poison” is the first law of toxicology, so instead of telling people they either have to quit or die, the Surgeon General should be telling smokers to smoke less, switch to lower-tar products, and consider smokeless tobacco products.

The current (June 2) issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reports on a University of Minnesota study of reduced-harm cigarettes (Omni, manufactured by Vector Tobacco Ltd.) and smokeless tobacco (Swedish snus, similar to chewing tobacco in the U.S.). The study documents how these products reduce exposure to harmful carcinogens.

Instead of calling attention to these products, which could actually save the lives of smokers, the anti-tobacco lobby calls for higher taxes and more smoking bans. Taxes on cigarettes are already excessive and grossly unjust. In Illinois, the average smoker pays more in cigarette taxes than the average nonsmoker pays in income taxes.

If smokers imposed a heavy cost on the rest of society, some level of taxation might be justified. But they do not. Every study of smokers’ health costs finds those costs to be vastly exceeded by cigarette taxes and payments from the MSA. This is the case even without taking into consideration the shorter life expectancy of smokers.

Smoking bans are also not the answer. Governments don’t own private bars and restaurants, and neither do nonsmokers or their lobbying groups. Respect for private property rights should stop any talk of imposing bans on private businesses, but alas, such respect is lacking in the anti-smoking movement.

In an age where tolerance of other people’s beliefs and lifestyles has been practically elevated to the status of a religion, why are smokers nevertheless taxed and discriminated against without limit or protest? Where are freedom’s defenders?

Surgeon General Carmona’s report is just another shot at smokers taken by an anti-smoking movement enriched with billions of dollars from liberal foundations, taxpayers, and the MSA. Enough is enough! Let’s show a little tolerance and respect for others!

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Chicago. His email address is [email protected].