How far should government go to protect us?

David Bozeman

One takes scant pleasure in defending the tobacco industry, but the pertinent question, now more than ever, is how much latitude will a freedom-loving people grant its government to tax, regulate, demonize, harass and suck the life out of a sector of our economy that is still legal?

The FDA is currently considering a ban on menthol cigarettes. These cigarettes are usually deemed more dangerous, and the proposal to ban them recently drew protestors to Washington, D.C., with many industry employees in North Carolina worried about losing their jobs.

The FDA is also considering new, more graphic warning labels for cigarette packs, including photos of diseased lungs, lips and even dead bodies. Speaking of which, you’re probably stumbling over corpses on sidewalks since, according to the surgeon general, exposure even to second-hand smoke can cause immediate disease, including heart attacks.

If the government believed that its concerns were valid about the public health of children and bystanders that they claim are subject to immediate disease and death — then why are they not arguing for an all-out cigarette ban?

It sounds as if the cause of big government is better served by a living, breathing monolithic boogeyman worth billions of dollars to sate the gluttonous appetites of public do-gooders?

The amount of revenue generated by tobacco taxes at federal. state and local levels is practically incalculable. Anti-smoking advocates claim that making the habit more expensive actually discourages smoking and saves lives and billions in medical costs.

Some even consider higher taxes a “user fee,” but, in fact, smokers, who typically die younger, are funding health care for older citizens, whose medical and personal care needs increase with the onset of old age. Government-funded health care? More like health care courtesy of your neighbor.

The anti-smoking crusade fuels what author Jacob Sullum called in 1998 “the tyranny of public health.” Stamping out what many consider a vile habit is worth any incursion of liberty and property. North Carolina, the heart of the tobacco belt, just last year banned smoking in bars and restaurants.

Proponents argued that the state, which subsidizes the health care of many of its citizens, has a stake in regulating private, lawful activity in private, lawful establishments that allow their patrons to smoke.

Sullum, whose book, For Your Own Good, details the hysteria of the anti-tobacco movement quotes Surgeon General C. Everett Koop from 1996: “From my point of view, anything that stops smoking is good.”

Apparently, the tobacco settlements disbursed to the states in the late 1990s intended to reimburse money spent treating smoking-related illnesses and to discourage children from smoking was not spent as planned.

Some reports indicate that no more than 3 percent went to the intended projects, with most dollars plugging “budgetary holes” (according to a medical news website) that occurred during the recession. Americans used to support their government by purchasing savings bonds — today, a pack of Marlboros would be about as lucrative for the ever-expanding, ever-merciful state.

Banning menthol and mandating graphic warning labels may well decrease consumption of cigarettes, but the Big Government mentality will never kill the golden goose.

By stigmatizing a bad habit, do-gooders have granted themselves leverage to extract freedom and money from a health-conscious population. Public health is a noble cause, so we are to believe, but the health the current state is obsessing over is clearly its own.

David Bozeman, former Libertarian Party Chairman, is a Liberty Features Syndicated writer.