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Cigarette Apologist

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The campaign against cigarette smoking is motivated by frustration at failing to find a cure for cancer. This wild allegation is part of a contorted defense of tobacco use in which it is argued that smoking does not merit punitive taxes or government regulation.

What is somewhat surprising is the prestigious academic background of the author of this sophistic argument in behalf of cigarette smoking. The individual who is playing mind games to make his case is Duke Psychology Professor emeritus John Staddon. His contention is that restricting smoking should be a private matter free of government intervention. It is a stance that persuaded the libertarian Cato Institute to provide him with a platform to express his views (enumerated in his recent book, Unlucky Strike).

Staddon is smart enough not to let cigarettes off scot free. He concedes they are risky and can reduce life span, but hastens to add they are not "lethal." If you want "lethal" he quips flippantly, riding a motorcycle is far more risky.

Here are some more of the non sequiturs and semantic sleights of hand that he uses to downplay tobacco use's public health threat. Our nation, he notes, was founded on a tobacco economy (for whatever that is worth). Smoking was nearly universal among the "greatest generation" who successfully guided the country through World War II. Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were smokers. Some smokers live to a ripe old age (but lots don't).

Staddon disputes that cigarettes are addictive. As proof, he posits that if people are told they will be dead in six weeks unless they quit smoking, they will undoubtedly stop.

Researchers for the American Cancer Society have a different take on addiction. They found that while 70 percent of smokers say they want to quit and about half try to do so each year, only four to seven percent succeed without help.

Staddon then asserts that since there is no conclusive scientific proof of a link between exposure of non-smokers to cigarette fumes and respiratory disease, no conclusion can be drawn. He should know better. Science rarely establishes absolute certainty. Its findings are based on the weight of evidence it accumulates. And the evidence implicating secondhand smoke as a health hazard is quite weighty. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 2.5 million non-smokers have succumbed from second hand smoke since 1964.

Undaunted, Staddon argues that non-smokers impose higher medical costs on the nation than do smokers because the latter tend to die quickly from tobacco related disease whereas the former can linger well into old age needing many medical interventions. But smokers can linger on too, often far more unpleasantly, and with more expensive intensive care. If they do die early, the financial ramifications for their survivors can end up costing the public treasury substantial sums.

Staddon maintains the government has no business regulating private risk. But government, in keeping with its obligation to protect the general welfare, has a duty to warn the public about highly dangerous, albeit legal, voluntary risk. Along with that responsibility comes the ethical obligation to discourage smoking as much as possible short of eliminating the public's freedom of choice.

Maybe in retrospect, Staddon should rethink whether he wants a legacy of playing devil's advocate for the tobacco industry.