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Jewish World Review Sept. 27, 1999 /17 Tishrei, 5760

Michelle Malkin

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Personal freedom
going up in smoke --
MY DAD STARTED SMOKING when he was in his late teens. He knew the risks then and he certainly knows them now. He's a medical doctor who has saved lives for more than three decades.

Dad leads an incredibly ascetic existence in all aspects except one - his voluntary nicotine indulgence. Increasingly, the public-health cops are encroaching on that small personal freedom. "At work, I can't smoke in my office. I can't smoke in the bathroom. I can't smoke outside if it's within 100 feet of the hospital," my dad notes. "When I fly, I can't smoke in the plane - even while passengers all around me are getting drunk. Then when I land, I can't smoke in the airport."

"And when I finally get home, I can't even smoke in my own bed!"

OK, this last restriction was imposed by my mom, but Dad is onto something. The threat of anti-smoking regulations that reach into private bedrooms is real. At Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, administrators required new workers to abstain from smoking away from work. The policy was dropped after employees demanded what a spokeswoman gingerly called "a less-parental approach." That didn't stop another Seattle-based hospital, Providence Medical Center, from floating an identical - and similarly ill-fated - plan last fall.

Elsewhere, lawmakers want to ban smoking in any car with passengers who are minors. Legal paternalists want to charge parents who expose their children to tobacco smoke with child abuse. "What?!" I can just hear Dad now. Yes, he lit up occasionally in my presence when I was a kid. But it was usually after doing something truly abusive - like cutting off my phone line or clamping down on curfew.

We've all heard the arguments used to justify the regulatory jihad against tobacco: There is an "epidemic" among our teens. Secondhand smoke kills tens of thousands of people each year. Smokers impose costs on society in the form of higher health-care costs. People who smoke don't know that smoking is bad for them. Blah, blah, blah.

But as Jacob Sullum, author of the recently published book "For Your Own Good" demonstrates, most of those claims crumble under objective scrutiny. The proportion of teens who smoke has increased slightly since cigar-chomping President Clinton took office, but is still much lower than it was 20 years ago. Casual exposure to secondhand smoke has little or no impact on life expectancy. Smokers tend to die before they are old enough to collect Social Security and Medicare, so they don't impose a cost on anyone except themselves. Surveys have shown that smokers not only fully understand the risks of smoking, but tend to overstate those risks.

Essayist Florence King observed that smokers are "scapegoats for a quintessentially American need, rooted in our fabled Great Diversity, to identify and punish the undesirables among us." I think what lights my dad's fuse the most is this selective ostracization of adults who knowingly and voluntarily accept the risks associated with tobacco - as opposed to other reckless risk-takers who get little grief (quite the opposite, actually) for their actions. A recent TV special, for example, featured a parade of near-fatal accidents involving horse racers, roller-coaster riders, bungee jumpers, trapeze artists, log-rollers and other thrill-seekers.

Far from a call for regulatory intervention to restrict these risky behaviors that impose costs of society, the program beamed prime-time glorification of dangerous behavior to millions of impressionable young viewers. Where are all the child advocates when you need them?

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Sullum notes correctly that at its core, the tobacco crusade "is an attempt by one group of people to impose their tastes and preferences on another" at taxpayer and consumer expense. The multi-billion-dollar settlement won by state attorneys general struck gold for public treasuries. Never mind the fact that the tobacco industry didn't force state governments to pay the smoking-related medical bills of Medicaid recipients - or any other Medicaid bills for that matter. Medicaid is a voluntary state-federal program for splitting the costs of medical care for low-income people. If participating states had a problem with offering unrestricted government benefits to recipients who voluntarily engage in risky, costly behavior, that's a political beef to take up with Congress - not the tobacco industry.

But Congress has shown no sympathy to the nation's 45 million beleaguered adult smokers. Republicans have failed to stop anti-tobacco forces from imposing confiscatory tax schemes. And now the federal government is filing suit to recover $25 billion in smoking-related costs. Never mind the plaintiff's own role in legalizing tobacco, subsidizing farmers who grow it, taxing the companies who manufacture it, and encouraging soldiers and prisoners to smoke it over the past five decades.

What happens when hypocritical governments take the individual liberties of a persecuted minority too lightly? Across the border in Canada, a 146 percent hike in cigarette taxes spawned rampant organized crime, smuggling, black markets and violence. For their own good, anti-smoking regulators and salivating trial lawyers should put that awful consequence in their pipes and smoke it.

JWR contributor Michelle Malkin can be reached by clicking here.


09/15/99: Farewell, "Miss" America
09/10/99: Will George W. work for a color-blind America?
09/03/99: Feminization of gun debate drowns out sober analysis
08/27/99: America is abundant land of equal-opportunity insult
08/10/99: Protect the next generation from diversity do-goodism
08/04/99: Sweepstakes vs. state lottery: double standards on gambling
07/21/99: "True-life tales from the Thin Red Line" (or "Honor those who sacrificed their lives for peace")
07/21/99: Reading, 'Riting, and Raunchiness?
07/14/99: Journalists' group-think is not unity
06/30/99: July Fourth programming for the Springer generation
06/25/99: Speechless in Seattle
06/15/99: Making a biblical argument against federal death taxes

©1999, Michelle Malkin