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Smoking Government: A Tobacco Tale

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Smoking became a significant political issue beginning with a shocking event in 1964 — First Surgeon General's Report: Smoking and Health. The Johnson Administration’s Surgeon General Dr. Luther L. Terry’s report came to what was then an astounding conclusion: “smoking causes cancer." The implications were staggering since the administration needed the tobacco growing states on its side, not to mention the industry’s money. To say that smoking was not only a multi-billion dollar year industry but a way of life would be understatement.

Joseph Califano, the senior domestic policy aide to President Lyndon Johnson, said, "It was a very dramatic and courageous thing to do." Califano also said, "We wanted to get schools integrated, the voters' rights act passed, fair housing passed. And all of those things required us to take on the whole phalanx of Southern states." Therefore, the Johnson Administration did not want to deal with the implications of the report by directly addressing them.

When I turned fourteen in 1964, I looked forward to taking up smoking as a grown up kind of thing. At the time almost half of all Americans smoked and they did it everywhere — restaurants, theatres, airplanes, offices. Television and movie stars smoked and cigarette advertising was everywhere. Magazines, newspapers, radio, television, billboards, movie theatres all benefited from cigarette ad revenue. Even television cartoons had cigarette sponsors.

In my parents’ time, during the print and radio advertising era, icons like Santa Claus and actors like president-to-be Ronald Reagan lit up.  Medical doctors endorsed cigarette brands for “patients who smoke.” In my time, millions of dollars went into television commercials which created their own icons, like the Marlboro Man. Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble lit up Winston’s. That is until Congress passed and President Richard Nixon signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act  on April 1, 1970. When it went into effect on New Year’s Day 1971, television lost $220 million a year in revenue.

More money is being spent today on tobacco advertising in anti-smoking campaigns. It is just that those ads may not be working the way they are intended. Many that use disturbing images are designed to scare people so that they don’t smoke. Present research, however, shows that such a strategy either does not work or may backfire.

The special relationship between tobacco and government dates from the founding of the nation. One can see it literally set in stone at the 19th century US Capitol building. The sight is called the Hall of Columns — 28 Corinthian columns line the corridor. When you look at their capitals, you see a stone work metaphor. In addition to classical acanthus leaves and native thistles, American tobacco plants appear to support the ceiling of government. In reality, tobacco still supports a lot of government at many levels.

Tobacco remains a big source of tax revenue at federal, state, county and city levels. According to the Tobacco Merchants Association, bills to raise tobacco taxes have been active in 22 state legislatures since last year. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that the previous year 11 states enacted increases. How much money is that? R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company estimates that state taxes generate almost $15 billion in revenue, while the federal excise tax of 39 cents a pack raises over $7 billion.

If you are a cigarette smoker traveling to New York, you may want to take a carton of smokes with you. The New York Legislature recently approved an increase in the cigarette tax that makes it highest in the country, almost $3 a pack. That is projected to raise $265 million for the state’s general fund.

Cigarette manufacturers argue that tobacco taxes make for an unstable revenue source because of declining sales. Supporters of increased cigarette taxes make a claim that increases in tobacco taxes drive down smoking rates, particularly among youths who may find that they cannot afford to start. The tobacco industry says smokers already bear an unfair tax burden and that the tax increases encourage bootlegging.

The economics of cigarettes first became an issue to me when I went to military school in 1965. A pack of cigarettes from a machine on campus cost a quarter. In town a carton cost $1.65, great savings on a $4.00 per week allowance. Price increases made me quit in 1975 when the pack cost half a dollar. I quit again in 1985 when it crossed the dollar mark. When I finally quit last year cigarettes cost about $4.00 a pack in San Francisco.

While the feds and states are raising tobacco taxes, smoking rates are going down. The American Heart Association says 26 million men and 21 million women in the U.S. are smokers. Meanwhile, cigarette sales have declined 18% since 2000 — more than 4 billion packs a year. Unfortunately, the National Cancer Institute says smoking-related illnesses are pushing half-a-million deaths each year in the U.S.

As if smoking is not enough of a danger and its economic and health impacts are not scary enough, there is yet more to fear. Step aside second-hand smoke. Meet the new headline maker — third-hand smoke. Third-hand smoke is a term being used to describe the invisible but toxic gases and particles that cling to smokers’ hair and clothing, lingering long after second-hand smoke has cleared. Passive smoking makes headlines but it may not be a very good point of argument.

According to Jane Gravelle, an economist with the Congressional Research Service,  “You hear that passive smoking might increase your risk 20 percent, 50 percent, 70 percent, but what you don't know is that lung cancer among nonsmoking individuals is a very, very rare disease. So you can have a big percentage increase, and it's still a very small risk.”

I first read about third-hand smoke the same day I read the latest story about the president-elect’s smoking. His doctor described Mr. Obama’s smoking history as “intermittent” and said Obama had quit several times. That is good enough for me. However there are folks who will wonder whether or not his quitting is a good thing, especially in a crisis situation otherwise known as the presidency.

Enter Neal Benowitz of the University of California, San Francisco, an expert in nicotine addiction. He says that “there is evidence that stopping smoking can cause irritability, slowed reaction time, or difficulty concentrating and solving problems. But that’s typically in heavy smokers — people who’ve smoked 10 or more cigarettes a day.” The good news for the nation is that Mr. Obama’s doctor reports that “he had quit several times.”

What I have found is that it takes a lot of quitting to quit smoking.  My advice to the new president is to personalize the act of quitting. Don’t turn your daughters into smokers, either first, second or third-hand. The government will be able to find revenue somewhere else. Besides, as American author and non-smoker John Steinbeck said, “I can start any time I want.”

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About Tommy Mack

Tommy Mack began his career in broadcasting and is a US Army graduate of the Defense Information School. He worked in Army Public and Command Information and earned a BS in Liberal Studies from the State University of New York, Albany. A marketing communications executive, Tommy became a business management consultant for a major international consulting company and its affiliates before establishing Tommy Mack Organization, a business consulting practice specializing in organization and communications management. A professional writer and blogger, he writes about politics, business, and culture.
  • Cindy D

    Good article Tommy. The video of Fred and Barney smoking…wow. I had forgotten the days of smoking on TV until Christmas. My sister got a video of old Christmas specials. On I Love Lucy, Ricky explained about Santa to little Ricky while holding the cigarette he was smoking right near the boy’s face. It was strange to see.

  • Doug Hunter

    It’s just smoking for now, next comes food, then GPS tracking on vehicles followed by embedded trackable ID tags in every human. Perhaps in a thousand years we’ll end up in some coccoon like in the matrix, enslaved not by misguided technology but our own fears.

    Freedom to do only the right things isn’t really freedom at all.

  • I make no apologies for smoking. America was built on the backs of sharecropping tobacco farmers. Without tobacco and slavery we would be just another Third World country. Now I know smoking is bad for me and I wish I could quit but those darned sin taxes are helping keep Massachusetts afloat. Smoking? It’s patriotic.

  • “Smoking is patriotic”?

    Y’know, there’s two people very close to me – my mother and my uncle – who have each smoked for at least fifty years…but the sum total of the cigarette taxes they’ve paid cannot have been anywhere near the amount of taxpayer-funded health care that they’ve received for illnesses and ongoing conditions due to smoking. What makes the problem worse is that both of them are on 24-hour oxygen and can do almost nothing for themselves. They can’t even bathe themselves.

    I compare my mother and my uncle to my mother-in-law who, even though she is OLDER than either my mother or my uncle, is STILL commuting by herself by bus and ferry and another bus to Seattle every week to a JOB that she’s been holding for the past ten years.

    So Silas, while there ARE smokers who have grown old and are still in decent health, the MAJORITY of the time the taxpayers pay out FAR more to take care of smokers in their old age than those smokers EVER paid in ‘sin taxes’.

  • Clavos

    Execute the smokers, they cost too much money to maintain, and will all die anyway.

    As an added benefit, we’ll reduce the population considerably.

  • Cindy D


    That is amazing. I was just writing something along the same lines. Then I gave it up.

  • Cindy D

    I smoke. But that’s because I’m a hypocrite.

  • I’m a member of the 4-H club: Hedonistic Homo Heretical Hypocrite. That being said, I know smoking is a scourge and though my intellect tells me it is bad my physical self craves the nicotine. Those who smoke know there is nothing better than a cigarette after a hearty meal or incredible sex. Perhaps 2009 will be the year I quit, stranger things have happened. But in the meantime I’ll keep smoking because the way I look at it I’m going to get killed in the impending Civil War because I’m one of those left wing nutbags the Right wing wants dead anyway.

  • Clavos

    I dunno, Silas. As others have pointed out in the past on this and other threads, the old labels just don’t work well anymore.

    Case in point: I find myself agreeing with your comments far more than disagreeing, and yet, I’m a “Right Wing nutbag.”

    Go figure.

  • Well, I live in California where smoking is banned in most public places and the world hasn’t ended. While I understand that this can be hard for dedicated puffers, I do enjoy being able to go into a bar or restaurant and not come out smelling like an incinerator.

    I’m usually also fine in Las Vegas, where smoking in public buildings is legal, but the casinos generally have such efficient air conditioning systems that one barely notices the smoke.

    I happen to think smokers just look silly. It’s not natural to think of it that way because it’s so widespread, but if you look at smoking in a certain way, it really is a daft thing to do.

    But – there’s no law against looking silly. I also think that guys who lift their trucks 20 feet up in the air on a custom chassis that was designed for a dock crane and wheels that look as if they’ve been nicked from the vehicle that moves the space shuttle to its launch pad, and then drive around in the firm belief that they look cool, are deluding themselves so severely they should probably be detained for mental health assessment. But, as Jet is fond of saying, that’s just my opinion.

    I’m fine with smoking so long as some numbskull doesn’t carelessly blow a cloud of smog all over me and act like there’s nothing wrong with that. (And no, Stan, I’m not one of those people who will make a point of crossing over from the other side of the beer garden just to cough at you!)

  • Well, Clav, I take that as a complement. I really don’t have much against Right wing nutbags except for the rabid ones like the late Jerry Falwell and my favorite target – Larry Craig.

    Like most of my LGBT friends I am VERY conservative in my thinking with regard to government. The vocal LGBT community really is a small part of the entire picture. I wish more of us who are not on the Left came out and talked about our values. They don’t differ all that much from the Conservative point of view. To me most Log Cabin Republicans are a better representative of LGBT-ville.

  • Cindy D


    The last time I was in CA, a few years ago, I was surprised that I was allowed to smoke on the outdoor deck of a restaurant in Newport Beach. I thought they lynched smokers in CA.

    My uncle wondered why laws banned smoking instead of regulating air quality.

    I don’t want to smoke and I plan to get over the addiction soon. If for no other reason than giving up being a hypocrite. But not looking silly is a good reason too.

  • Clavos

    Well, Clav, I take that as a complement.

    That’s how it was meant.

    Like most of my LGBT friends I am VERY conservative in my thinking with regard to government.

    As are most of my LGBT friends. For the most part, they are successful small business owners who understand the value of entrepreneurship and independence, while retaining (as do I) a “liberal” viewpoint regarding societal issues.

  • I really didn’t care much about second-hand smoke until I came home from work one day and my wife asked me to wash my hands, then rub my hands in my hair, and then smell my hands.

    My hair stunk like cigarettes (I’ve smoke two cigarettes in my life)…and this helped me realize that each and every day, I’m breathing in that same crap into my lungs, and the same smoke that was sticking to my hair was sticking inside my lungs.

    Try the same experiment sometime that you’re around people smoking for a while….

  • There seems to be something in our family’s genes that renders us not very susceptible to tobacco.

    I’ve never smoked – not even an experimental drag.

    My Dad, a lifelong smoker, abruptly quit one day in his mid-50s, without any apparent withdrawal symptoms or other ill-effects, and never smoked again.

    When he was about 14, my brother was bought a pack of 10 one day by a mate of ours who was old enough to get away with it. According to our friend’s account, he lit one up, liked it, finished off the rest of the entire pack within the space of about 45 minutes – and as far as I know has never smoked since.

  • Doc –

    On the other hand, I was given a few puffs when I was a child and didn’t think much of it…but when my friend convinced me to smoke one back in the 90’s, as soon as I finished it I felt the want, the need to smoke another one. That scared me, and I’ll never do it again.

    But you’re right – some of the addiction problem is genetic…but tobacco’s still more addictive than many illegal drugs (and deadlier than, say, marijuana).

  • Cindy D

    I don’t know how people could like their first cigarette. Mine almost killed me. I had to force myself to smoke.

  • Cindy,

    I think you got unlucky. If your experience was generally true then hardly anyone would smoke. For the same reason that hardly anyone eats poop.

  • bliffle

    I remember well when cigarette smoking was considered normal. Most people smoked, except, of course, my parents (who were intrinsically weird anyhow, as we all knew), so me and my cohorts started smoking sometime in high school.

    Yes, it was distressing that so many famous people, celebrities, politicians, etc., were dieing in their 50s from lung cancer, but that wasn’t enough to stop us. What finally stopped me was that I didn’t want to smoke around my children and thus get them smoking. So, I became as weird as my own parents and quit.

    It seems to have worked, only one of the kids smokes occasionally.

    Now that I’m old and none of this matters anymore, I sometimes have a small cigar, out in the open someplace where there are no people, with a cup of strong coffee, perhaps a sip of wine. I usually put it out after less than a half is finished. The thrill is gone.

  • Happy Surgeon General Day, one and all. On this date in 1964, U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry issued the first government report saying “smoking may be hazardous to one’s health.”


  • Mary

    Surgeon General’s Warning: Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide. The only percaution on the package of cigarettes today. After all that, there is less harm in smelling cigarettes than driving a car and smelling the fumes.


    By your reasoning, Mary, it does make dining outside by a street, like Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, seem a little odious. Perhaps the menus there should have similar warnings.