Peter Pringle's America: An inexcusable cloud of death

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From afar, and for some time now, it must have seemed that Americans have gone over the top in their efforts to reduce smoking. Twenty states allow restaurants, or offices, to ban cigarettes. The Pentagon has ordered no smoking in barracks, ships, planes and submarines. The smoke-free battlefield is next, presumably. Smoking is already banned in buses, trains and at most airports. One state, Washington, has banned smoking at work, and last week, in a ferocious attack against smokers and the cigarette industry, Bill Clinton proposed the workplace ban should be nationwide and enforced by the federal government.

The main reason was mounting evidence that so-called secondhand smoke from others can also be harmful, something which has always seemed rather obvious to me. It is the same smoke, after all. Nevertheless, Congress wants to put a dollars 1.25 (80p) tax on a packet of 20, bringing the price to more than dollars 3 (compared with about pounds 2.70 here) and some in the administration want to regulate nicotine as a dangerous drug, like marijuana or cocaine. With the President's hand now firmly behind the anti-smoking lobby, it may soon be against the law to light up while walking down the street. And then what? Fifth

Avenue becomes a smokers' thoroughfare and Madison Avenue a smoke-free paradise?

Where is fairness or, indeed, the Bill of Rights in this? Should not smokers be allowed to kill themselves if they want to? And look at how they are victimised. See the wretched smoker who has to stand in the rain outside his or her office for a quick puff.

Then think of the beleaguered tobacco farmers facing ruin if cigarettes were to be taxed out of reach of the 6 million mostly poor people who still smoke. Aren't the activities of the anti-smoking lobby un-American? Some people can even sympathise with the tobacco companies as victims. But not me. The way these companies operate, not just what they produce, turns me into a zealot each time I think of it.

I cannot understand why tobacco companies are allowed to make so much money out of their victims and still be treated by government tax laws as though nothing were wrong, as though the US Surgeon General's 1989 warning about the links between smoking and cancer somehow did not exist.

A recent article in the New York Times laid out some startling facts. Philip Morris, the largest tobacco company in America, is so big that if it were not there, keeping the US economy bubbling along, some other enterprise would have to take its place. In 1992, the company paid a whacking dollars 4.5bn in taxes, on revenues of dollars 59bn, making it the largest taxpayer in the country and, outside government, the largest tax collector.

In general, the tobacco industry is a cornerstone of American farming in the South. Abandon the tobacco fields and a lot of people would be out of work. The industry also has a tremendous spin-off elsewhere in the economy. Philip Morris spends dollars 2bn a year on media advertising - including promotion of its associated food, beer and tobacco products. Through advertising, it helps to keep many newspapers and even more magazines afloat. It contributes to the wellbeing of the legal profession through the many, and expensive, lawsuits it generates over smoking. You could also say it boosts the coffers of the medical profession by putting smokers in hospital, and gives undertakers more work by causing people to die of cancer before their time.

It certainly creates work for drug companies engaged in trying to kick the habit by providing nicotine skin patches and the like.

What is unacceptable is that the companies are actually given a tax break when they donate profits to charity. How can a government that links smoking to lung and throat cancers, emphysema and heart disease, and estimates that tobacco kills more than 420,000 Americans a year - more than the combined deaths from homicide, suicide, Aids, automobile accidents, alcohol and drug abuse - possibly allow such a gross wrong?

More visible than the other companies, Philip Morris, for example, supports organisations such as the National Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and the United Negro College Fund, when it is widely known that one group suffering more than most from the effects of smoking in the US is the socially disadvantaged African Americans.

The largest tobacco company in the world also seeks to salve its corporate conscience by contributing to such organisations as the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, the YMCA, hospitals, and schools' drug abuse clinics. In the past 35 years, Philip Morris has also sought to improve its national image by contributing to a list of artistic endeavours that runs to 130 pages and includes the Joffrey Ballet, Morgan Library, the Jewish Museum, the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. For an organisation to do this and provide a product that, according to the government, kills people is more than tasteless, it is preposterous.

In their pursuit of freedom, Americans will always demand the right to kill themselves by smoking tobacco, jumping off the Empire State Building or whatever. That is their right. But if the evidence of the harmful effects of second-hand smoke is sufficiently alarming, the government should recommend a healthier environment. That is its responsibility. The government should also deny tax breaks to companies whose products it has decreed as harmful, and stop them pretending to be benign when they are not. Anything less is a vile smokescreen.