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The new evil empire

National | Now that Joe Camel is conquered, let's broaden the inquiry

Issue: "Question of Faith," April 5, 1997

Tobacco has replaced communism as the evil empire of the '90s.

Twenty-two attorneys general held a news conference to publicly flog the tobacco companies for "lying" and "covering-up" their knowledge that tobacco is addictive and can kill people who use it. The smell of moral triumphalism was thicker than a smoke-filled room. "I believe this is the beginning of the end of this conspiracy of lies and deception," crowed Grant Woods, Arizona's attorney general. "Someone is finally telling the truth," he added.

An admission two weeks ago by the Liggett Group, Inc., is being hailed as a victory for health. Liggett has admitted that smoking causes cancer and other diseases; agreed to provide thousands of pages of internal documents that could damage the larger tobacco companies; and offered a cash settlement to reimburse states for Medicare expenses associated with smoking-related illnesses.

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The stronger warnings coming on cigarette packs may dissuade some from lighting up in their teen or pre-teen years, but my sense is that unless the moralists can cure kids of peer pressure and eliminate the condition known as "being cool," they will have as much impact as the sex educators, who believe that providing kids with more information about sex outside of a moral framework means they will have less of it (or will "protect" themselves with condoms).

No one is calling these attorneys general names. No one is suggesting they are trying to impose their morality on others who do not share it. Tobacco has been judged by the elites to be evil and, so, by their definition, it is evil.

Since the '60s, when all morality and immorality was defined by how the flower children saw life (Vietnam was evil, but promiscuous sex and drugs were good), standards have been related more to weights and measurements than governing behavior or illuminating life.

No one is suggesting the fat content of hamburgers should be sharply reduced or that the fast-food chains, which are contributing to heart disease (the number-one killer), should be demonized alongside the tobacco companies. Alcohol, which is also a drug, is not being saddled with the stigma of tobacco, though it can be addictive and is associated with the death of others in automobile accidents, crime, and domestic violence. The prisons are jammed with alcohol abusers, but tobacco use doesn't drive people to murder, or rape, or beat up a spouse.

Television, which seems addictive to some young people who are watching it for record numbers of hours, continues to spew filth, crudities, and banality, and dull our senses for nobler things. As entertainer Steve Allen has put it, television affords an opportunity for vulgarians to address barbarians. Labeling the programs doesn't make them less harmful any more than labeling cigarettes protects smokers.

The film industry once produced movies that truly entertained, and even educated. It ratified a generally accepted, though not always practiced, moral code. Too many contemporary films now appeal to the base, which contributes to the debasing of individuals and society. Labeling films does not debase us less.

The argument here is not in favor of tobacco or tobacco companies. I have not been seduced by their product (though some close to me have). The companies certainly attempt to lure kids to try cigarettes so they will be "customers" for life. I do not disagree with what the attorneys general have done and applaud them for their work. I only wish that, having rediscovered a standard of morality in one area, they would broaden that standard and use it to begin conforming us to it in other areas.

I may be at risk from exposure to secondhand smoke. I am more at risk when I try to walk down almost any street in Washington, and most other cities, at night. And I am at greater risk, still, when I put my body in the hands of a medical profession that is rapidly abandoning standards for life and death. When will more of our leaders finally tell the truth about these things?

c 1997, Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas

Cal, whose syndicated column appears on WORLD's website and in more than 500 newspapers, is a frequent contributor to WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It. Follow Cal on Twitter @CalThomas.

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