Friday, June 26, 2009

Thoughts on tobacco

All Americans should feel compassion for Barack Obama as he tries to stop smoking. The American presidency is the toughest job in the world, full of stress, with a new crisis to deal with every day. It is nigh impossible to beat a powerful addiction under conditions like that.

I know a fellow who started at 16, partly because he wanted people to think he was older, partly because he wanted to look tough, and partly because Camels gave such a nice buzz, at least in the early days. By his mid-thirties he'd tried to quit several times. Once he managed to stop for a few weeks, but he had a boss who was also a smoker, and at a drunken newspaper party the boss kept encouraging him to have one, just one. Being a weak-willed wretch, he gave in and was hooked again.

Not until he had surgery for suspected cancer (it wasn't) at age 35 did he stop for good. The guy in the other bed in the semi-private hospital room was the same age, and had quit smoking fifteen years before. Nonetheless he had come down with lung cancer. One look at the wastebasket overflowing with red-flecked tissues he coughed into, hacking through the night, and the fellow I know never again had another cigarette. There is nothing like the jolt of suddenly facing a vivid prospect of early death to wrench one off a runaway train.

Not that Obama ought to check himself into Walter Reed and find a roomie in the last stages of lung cancer. I wouldn't wish that on the most desperate tobacco addict.

I'm hoping Obama finds a way to quit, and that it doesn't ultimately prove to be too late. Even after almost 34 years without a cigarette, there is still a risk of lung cancer, a risk far greater than if one had never smoked at all. It's hard to keep from looking nervously over the shoulder for the apparition with the scythe.

It's nice that Congress has passed a law (which Obama has signed) giving the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco, but you can be sure that the still powerful tobacco lobby will keep the agency all but toothless.

Ban tobacco? That won't work. Look at the War on Drugs, a study in national futility. The only way out is to tax tobacco so punitively, to make smoking so expensive, that only the very rich can afford the habit.

But the wealthy are not likely to waste their money on tobacco. (Cocaine is another matter.) People of higher economic and social classes generally disdain smoking today; it tends to be the blue-collars, the poor and the uneducated, who get hooked.

And, of course, mindless youth. I was one.


  1. Keep in mind, as you go around discouraging people from smoking, that you are simultaneously raising your own taxes.

    In my neck of the woods (Wisconsin), the tax on a pack of cigarettes -- just the state tax -- is going to $2.52! Per pack!

    Reminds me of a cartoon someone emailed me the other day: Two guys sitting on a park bench; one is reading a newspaper whose lede hed is Health Care Reform Debate, and he says to the other guy, "I'd rather you die than me pay higher taxes."

  2. "There is nothing like the jolt of suddenly facing a prospect of early death to wrench one off a runaway train."

    Mr. Kisor, I would suggest that wrenching oneself off a runaway train tends to lead to an early death.

  3. Pete, I wouldn't want folks to smoke themselves into an early grave to keep my taxes low. Would you? Same thing with energy. I wouldn't want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to suffer from runaway global pollution and climate change tomorrow just so I could enjoy lower taxes today.

    Anonymous, I'm afraid I'm guilty as charged of mutilating a metaphor.