By WILLIAM A. COLLINS
Smoking isn’t in the news much these days, but maybe it should be. Nearly half a million Americans still die from it each year. As the leading preventable cause of death in our country, tobacco kills way more people than guns, car accidents, and drug overdoses combined.
And sure, smoking is gradually declining, but powerful players are fighting mightily to sustain its deadly impact on the world.
This is no shock because there’s a ton of money in nicotine, whether consumers get their fix in cigarettes, pipes, cigars, battery-powered electronic cigarettes, or chewing tobacco. Many folks pay truly amazing prices for a pack and put up with draconian restrictions on where they may puff.
Nicotine, after all, is just a legal and addictive drug.
Due to tobacco’s gratifying profit margins, purveyors have become remarkably adept at finding new promotion angles and playing vigorous legal defense. For years, the homegrown industry has staved off tougher warning labels such as those seen in Europe and Australia.
Big tobacco lost another round of its fight against graphic labels in a federal appeals court in 2012. But you can bet you won’t see photos of diseased lungs on retail packs anytime soon around this country. While the Supreme Court refused to hear the case last year, other obstacles remain in the way.
Meanwhile, e-cigarettes are booming. They deliver nicotine to hungry lungs without tobacco’s fatal tars and resins.
That’s good for competition, perhaps. But who needs more addicts?
Well, the manufacturers do. Several boast that their smokes deliver more nicotine than their competitors. Thanks, guys, for that solid contribution to society.
Then there are those cutesy bidi cigarettes. The hand-rolled fad aims to hook modern youth with sundry yummy flavors. Luckily, the FDA recently gained greater regulatory powers over health risks, and it has just ordered four varieties of this malevolent product off the market altogether.
But U.S. adventures with tobacco aren’t limited to our own borders. The crop has wormed its way into international trade agreements. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), one of President Barack Obama’s big priorities, may give new spark to tobacco companies. It could make it easier for companies in the cigarette business to sue whole nations that have had the temerity to impose annoying restrictions.
And do you recall that landmark national tobacco settlement back in 1998? It required tobacco companies to fork over billions to the states to use in anti-smoking programs and efforts to cope with health problems caused by smoking. Well, the companies have indeed been paying, but the states have been chiseling.
By and large, they plunk all but a trifle of that money into their general funds to hold down taxes. In 2014, the states will spend less than 2 percent of the $25 billion in settlement money they’ll pull in to prevent kids from becoming smokers and to help adults who smoke quit.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the whole tobacco epic is that so many people — including about one in five Americans — still smoke the stuff. Why on Earth is that?
Researchers at Hebrew University have concluded that many smokers simply suffer from a lack of self-control. Well, if that’s all there is to it, the war on tobacco may never end.
OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. OtherWords.org