The Tobacco Industry Surrender
By Thomas A. Bowden (Oregonian, Nov. 17, 1998; Colorado Springs Gazette, Nov. 25, 1998; Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nov. 26, 1998)
Everybody recognizes the Marlboro Man--that rugged, handsome cowboy whose reward for hard work well done is the quiet pleasure of smoking a cigarette in the warm glow of a campfire. In his weather-beaten visage, we recognize that brand of serene individualism which Americans have always regarded as their birthright.
But did you ever notice that the Marlboro Man never speaks? In this one respect, he symbolizes not only an American ideal of quiet self-confidence, but also an American tragedy of philosophical poverty.
If there was ever a time for the Marlboro Man to speak up, it is now, as the tobacco industry drifts toward the brink of its own destruction. But sadly, he will remain silent, as will the tobacco companies that should be speaking for him, defending the moral right of smokers to be left alone.
Just how weak the tobacco defense has become was revealed this past summer, when the industry was threatened with federal legislation that would have put cigarettes under FDA control, banned entertaining advertisements, and imposed penalties totaling billions of dollars (plus billions more if teenage smoking did not decline by 60 per cent over 10 years). Dozens of other controls and prohibitions would have subjected the once-free tobacco industry to the type of government stranglehold characteristic of European fascist states.
At first glance, it would appear that the industry mounted an effective defense, since Congress abandoned the legislation. But look more closely--the tobacco companies' major argument was financial, not ethical. The proposed $1.10-per-pack excise tax on cigarettes, tobacco lobbyists argued, was merely a government tax grab, not a sincere effort to reduce teen smoking.
The anti-tobacco forces can easily circumvent this financial defense by toning down the tax aspects of next year's proposal while keeping every other oppressive provision. Then what will the tobacco companies have left to say?
If only the Marlboro Man could speak, before he disappears from America's billboards and magazines forever. If only the tobacco companies could find the proper words to utter in their own defense--what should they say?
They should begin by establishing that the tobacco industry has done nothing to deserve the political and legal attacks that threaten to destroy it. After all, smokers have chosen over the decades to risk whatever ill effects might result from the habit. If they wanted to avoid all risk, they could have quit, like the millions of people who bucked the "addiction" by exercising their free will.
As for non-smokers who worry about harm from second-hand smoke (a danger far from conclusively proven), contract law has always protected their right to prohibit smoking on their own property while choosing not to visit places where smoking is permitted. And if there are individuals out there who can prove they became ill from forced exposure to cigarettes, they should sue the people who blew smoke in their faces, not the companies that made the cigarettes.
Having established that smoking violates no one's rights, the tobacco companies should shift the controversy from the nation's courtrooms and legislatures to the one place where no one would ever expect them to mount a defense--the solemn realm of morality.
Smoking, they should say proudly, provides pleasure for millions of people who find that it soothes anxiety and enlivens social occasions. No company should have to apologize for helping these people enjoy themselves.
This is not to say that smoking is an inherent good, only that it is not an inherent evil. As with the decision to drink alcoholic beverages, an individual's entire context determines whether the choice to smoke is rational or irrational. This context includes one's medical condition, one's doctor's advice, and whether one plans to smoke in moderation--or three packs a day.
Imagine the result if cigarette companies stood up for their moral right to make a profit from doing the hard work that makes the pleasure of smoking possible. Such an uncompromising declaration, by even one lonely tobacco executive, would propel the industry onto the moral high ground, where it belongs.
Of course, it won't happen, and it's not just because executives are afraid of public opinion or stockholder revolt. It is the expression of moral certainty that they truly fear, because at bottom they are not sure of their moral superiority to those who would destroy the industry.
So tobacco executives will go on compromising with their enemies, and in the end they will go quietly, joining the ranks of other great industrialists who have willingly donned the yoke of government regulation.
And on that not-so-distant day when tobacco is banned in this country, and the last legal cigarette is ground out in the last legal ashtray, the Marlboro Man will be watching from advertising heaven.
No smile will crease his weathered face. He will simply turn away, with nothing at all to say.
Thomas A. Bowden is an analyst at the Ayn Rand Institute, focusing on legal issues. Mr. Bowden is a former lawyer and law school instructor who practiced for twenty years in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ayn Rand Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand—author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
For more articles by Thomas Bowden, and his bio, click here.