Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
By David G. Young
WASHINGTON, August 12, 1997 --
It was another heavy blow to smokers. Last week, President Clinton banned smoking in all executive branch buildings. The move followed weeks of major setbacks to the tobacco industry: Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man were banned; Manufacturers were forced into a settlement to pay a third of a trillion dollars over the next 25 years; Cigarette taxes were scheduled to skyrocket.
It seemed that the anti-smoking crusaders were finally winning. Led by zealous extremists like Rep. Henry Waxman, (D-CA) and former FDA chief David Kessler, the goal of a smoke-free society was getting closer every day. At least that's what I read in the papers as I sat in my Washington, D.C. apartment.
It was time for a reality break. Leaving the media hype behind, I decided to take a walk around the Capitol. It was there that I was in was inspired to see the true future of tobacco in America.
Tobacco is such a deeply integrated part of American culture and history that it is one of the pillars of our government. Literally. Gracing the tops of the marble columns on the U.S. Capitol building, I saw ornately carved tobacco leaves. Dozens of these carvings, symbolic of America's agricultural heritage, adorn the workplace of some of the most virulently anti-tobacco politicians in the nation. Rep. Waxman, whose rabid 1994 hearings pompously denounced tobacco executives, works daily in a building whose very structure mocks his futile crusade. I chuckled as I walked around the Capitol. Further mocking Waxman's puritanical vision that evening were a group of teenagers huddled under a tree on the Capitol grounds -- smoking.
Despite the efforts of those in the neo-temperance movement, the popularity of smoking among teenagers has been growing for the past five years. The teen smoking rate jumped by 10 percent last year and now far exceeds the rate of smoking by adults.1 These same children are our future. The future is full of smokers.
How could this happen? After years of impressive victories by the anti-tobacco lobby, the grip of the wanna-be prohibitionists is as weak as ever. Smoking, more a taboo than ever, is seen by youth as immensely cool.
The apparent national obsession with stamping out tobacco is little more than a fad. The 60s' flower children, now graying and stodgy, once again are trying to change the world. This time, however, they want a world quite different from the chemically-enhanced sex-fest of 25 years ago. Their new utopia is a family-oriented, conservative, safe and smoke-free planet. While vast numbers ensure that the baby boomers exert a disproportionate influence on American culture, the influence is highly mercurial. Most people's perceptions change as they age. Few baby boomers cared about healthy lifestyles and protecting children from cigarettes 15 years ago. Few will care 15 years from now.
When this inevitable change happens, when boomers' attentions shift from protecting their teenage children to protecting their retirement investments, the momentum of the anti-smoking movement will sputter and die. The true zealots of the tobacco-free crowd will be left in the cold. It will be a welcome blessing.
While it's difficult to argue with the purported goals of the anti-smoking crowd -- reducing death and suffering caused by smoking-related disease -- it is also difficult to take pride in the track record of the movement. In the ten years since they put their cause celebre into high gear, advocates have failed to make reductions in the teen smoking rate.2 Meanwhile, zealots in the movement have succeeded in breeding a culture of repressive intolerance. Across the country, smokers are herded out of the office, onto the sidewalk, and to the back of the proverbial bus. It has become socially acceptable for nonsmokers to speak of them with arrogant contempt. It is sad enough that this is the only accomplishment of the anti-smoking movement. It is sadder still that it makes many zealots proud.
Hopefully, the culture of intolerance will die with the movement. Ostracism and hate could be replaced by productive activities -- like making smoking safer and healthier. Regardless of the social outcome, the practical future is clear. Tobacco has adorned the U.S. Capitol for two hundred years. It will remain a part of the building -- and our society -- for centuries to come.