When states sued tobacco companies, they said, "Its not the money, its about our children." Now, its the money.
The main character in J. D. Salingers novel The Catcher in the Rye pictured thousands of kids playing in a field atop "some crazy cliff," liable to tumble off unless he caught them. Today, folks make money from kids going over the edge. For instance, if 3,000 American children per day dont start smoking, tobacco companies domestic market will suffer. Since, according to numerous studies, nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine, this "crazy cliff" event is rigged: One in three teens who buy that ticket ultimately die from it, paying for it the whole way down.
In the 1990s, states sued Big Tobacco and settled for a tidy $254 billion. Youd think the catcher in the rye could relax; instead hes being hung out to dry. The portion of total state tobacco revenues (including settlements and taxes) used toward smoking prevention is a shameful 3 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislaturesnowhere near federal guidelinesand continuing to nosedive.
Prevention programs are a proven vaccination against generations of disease and death. The evidence is in, but the vaccination is being withheldbillions of dollars diverted. Call it missed historic opportunity or sin of omission. Dr. Karen Lebacqz, an ethicist at the Pacific School of Religion, calls the siphoning off "a breach of the public trust."
Mississippis Mike Moore, the first attorney general to sue tobacco companies, says its as if "Alaskas governor and legislature recovered money from Exxon to clean up the mess, then decided they needed new roads and just left the mess out there...." (Its interesting that the Valdez spill, roads, and tobacco all have to do with depositing tar.)
Health officials offer little encouragement. For instance, as Minnesota terminated its widely hailed youth-led anti-smoking program, its health commissioner couldnt say if teen smoking rates would rise, telling the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "I wont say they willthey may." Others, however, dont hesitate. "Smoking rates go up and people are going to die" when states reduce this funding, says S.C. Carthen, president of National Black Clergy for Substance Abuse Prevention.
AH, YES: WHAT about state deficits? Even if you accept the cold calculus that sacrifices kids for a no-new-taxes pledge, consider that each tobacco-prevention dollar can yield three dollars in health savings. As the United States hemorrhages medical costsmore than $75 billion per year due to tobaccowere removing what stanches that bleeding. Who benefits? Big Tobacco does, along with a cast of policymakers in their bed of campaign finance and influence.
States tobacco money "has become their go-to slush fund," Sen. John McCain told The Wall Street Journal. Thus another chapter is added to our national saga going back to tobacco plantations where, before cotton, slaverys roots first took hold in that not-so-great white way of doing business on other peoples backs. Not to mention that Big Tobacco refines and exports this modus operandi worldwide.
Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who says these issues come "with moral, ethical, and spiritual underpinnings," has called Big Tobacco a social "malignancy." Dr. Raymond Gangarosa, who formulated the economic theory behind the tobacco suits, gives this diagnosis: "Weve got an immune system not attuned.... Failing to see this as cancer means it thrives while the body wastes away."
Treatments include strong FDA authority over this product manufactured with less regulation than shoes; increasing tobacco excise fees; protecting and expanding environments where the class-A toxins in second-hand smoke arent part of breathing; and ratifying the World Health Organizations Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. But a first step is to elect authentic leaders with the integrity to stand behind tobacco preventionand all proven catchers in the rye. Its simple in 2004. Deal with that crazy cliff, or deal with a landfill of bodies at the bottom.
Rick Bernardo is a public health consultant in Minneapolis. He is writing a book on the spiritual battles behind the tobacco war.