Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Not quite victory . . .

but we're winning. I'm talking about tobacco. When I first entered the field of public health, the tobacco companies were successfully polluting the scientific waters with phony research purchased from lowlife whores with Ph.D.s and, incredibly, accusing legitimate investigators of "junk science" with the aid and comfort of "journalistic balance." Everybody except Richard Daynard and John Banzhaf believed that is was impossible ever to successfully sue a tobacco company, and there were full page pictures of happy, healthy, beautiful young people and macho men deriving sexual potency and mysterious allure from their Newports and Marlboros on the back of every magazine and looming on billboards over every city block. The tobacco companies owned Congress and every state legislature, and everybody knew there was nothing anybody could do about it. Smoking was normal. Every celebrity smoked, every movie character smoked, parents smoked, kids smoked, people smoked on airplanes, in restaurants, before, during and after meals. Athletes smoked. People with throat cancer smoked through their tracheotomies. Nurses smoked in hospitals. Teachers smoked in school.

In Massachusetts, in 1992, the voters approved a 25 cent tax on every pack of cigarettes, to fund tobacco control and school health education programs. California did the same thing at about the same time. Several of the states sued the tobacco companies and in 1999 they won a settlement that established some effective constraints on tobacco marketing, scooped up a lot of money for tobacco control programs and nearly as important, forced them to give up a roomful of documents that proved they were liars and murderers. Cities began to pass workplace smoking bans, then whole states. The prevalence of tobacco addiction fell. Fewer kids started smoking. The rate of heart disease and lung cancer started to go down.

Now, the Republican Surgeon General finally announces that yes, there is a scientific consensus that exposure to environmental tobacco smoke is harmful. This is a bullet-proof rationale for banning smoking in public places. Your liberty to swing your fist stops at the end of my nose. Your freedom to poison yourself does not extend to poisoning me. Case closed.

We have not achieved the official national goal of reducing tobacco use to less than 12% of adults, and less than 16% of youth -- in fact we're still at 21% and 22%, and the decline in youth smoking may have leveled off. You can get the full update and current scientific consensus from the National Institutes of Health here. (PDF) But the good news is that more and more jurisdictions are passing workplace bans, and this really helps -- it doesn't just eliminate involuntary exposure, it encourages and helps people to quit. It also means that kids are much less likely to see adults smoking, and so less likely to emulate them. Health insurers are paying for smoking cessation programs. TV and, to a lesser extent, the movies, are much less likely to depict smoking as a normal or glamorous activity. In fact you hardly ever see people smoking on TV any more.

Alas, as I have reported before, the tobacco companies are doing just fine, because their business is growing internationally. A horrible death is too good for Americans after all, but we're still getting rich by exporting it.

You'll feel alive with pleasure, playful as a child.
You've come to where the freedom is.
You're cool and mild.
You'll laugh with every lungful as the change comes over you.

So look up at the billboard.
See her smiling, sexy and tan.
But the only one who's laughing is the advertising man.


-- David Wilcox

1 comment:

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