Jewish World Review Oct. 9, 2002/ 3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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Consumer Reports

A burning issue for the guvvies | Somewhere in the bowels of the Department of Health and Human Services someone ought to start work on a smoking commercial.

Not an anti-smoking commercial. Something to present smoking, shortness of breath and lung cancer in a positive, even genial, light. It's in the national interest.

Specifically, it's in the interest of all the states that shared in the windfall of the tobacco settlement that showered billions on the states to spend on things dear to the hearts of governors and state legislators.

The little secret, as dirty as any ashtray and never to be addressed in public, is that the states have a crucial interest not in stopping smoking, but in encouraging smoking. Who can doubt that the states eventually will? If something happens to the tobacco companies, all those billions go the way of the butt and the stogie.

The California jury that last week awarded $28 billion - that's billion, not million - to a terminally ill woman who is a lifelong smoker took 5 percent of the value of Philip Morris, as measured by its falling share price on the New York Stock Exchange, off the books in the single day.

Nearly all of the award to Betty Bullock, 64, of Los Angeles, who is not expected to live long enough to get any of the money, is for punitive damages, and an appeals court is almost certain to reduce it, probably dramatically. Still, she is to receive more than a million dollars in actual damages. She probably won't live long enough to get any of that, either. But her lawyers will. Judges, who can be very hard on common thieves, often share the thief's disregard for the money of others.

Mrs. Bullock's lawyer says she is "happy that she has survived long enough to see justice." The lawyer takes consolation in the fact that his cut runs into the billions of dollars. He will send a nice bunch of flowers to the funeral.

Mrs. Bullock's illness is sad in human terms, of course, but hers is a story of willful defiance of the risks she began taking when she was a teenage girl in South Dakota. Her daughter, as a small child, begged her to quit because her mother "smelled bad" and the house smelled "icky." One of the lawyers for Philip Morris asked Mrs. Bullock during cross-examination whether she had ever heard that smoking was dangerous.

"I would read the little clip in the paper here or there," she said. "Some medical studies were stating that they felt it could. But then I'd see things Philip Morris would say, like 'that's just statistics, there is no medical proof. Our No. 1 concern is our customers, and we protect their health,' and there wasn't any risk."

Naturally, Mrs. Bullock believed the fine print from the dirty rotten company, not her own hacking cough. For their part, the Philip Morris lawyers will appeal, and argue that the jury should have considered whether Mrs. Bullock knew of the dangers of cigarets (which have been called "coffin nails" for a hundred years) and should have taken responsibility for her lifestyle.

But surely the lawyers jest. To suggest that anyone should take personal responsibility is at least insensitive, and probably un-American. We don't do personal responsibility any more. Everything bad that happens is someone else's fault. It's in the Constitution.

The tobacco companies are, in fact, dirty rotten exploiters of human weakness. They deserve no sympathy from the rest of us. But the men and women of government, responsible for enforcing public policy, can't be bamboozled by mere sentiment. The governors and the legislators have taken the money, allocated it for crucial government services, and they have to protect the source of funding. Even the D.C. Council couldn't put enough meter maids on the streets to write the tickets to make up a tobacco shortfall.

Thus a campaign to impress on young people a patriotic duty to smoke is a necessity. Good citizens owe it to their country. Clever television commercials could get across the point that since we all have to die of something, smokers might die of something else before the bitter weed gets them. The camera could cut to a car careering off a cliff, for example, and just before impact the driver says: "Gee, if I had known I was going to die like this, I never would have given up my Lucky Strikes."

Such a campaign will require a large measure of cynicism, but cynicism was invented by government. The feds promote "safe sex" when it knows that some forms of sex, particularly the peculiar kind favored in fashionable gay precincts, are never safe. The surgeon general would never condemn this in the way surgeon generals condemn the practice of ingesting poison at the north end of the alimentary canal.

Tommy Thompson must get someone to work at once, before greedy lawyers, compliant judges and ignorant juries wipe out the cash we need to keep our bureaucracies fat and sassy.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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