My non-smoking doctor friend sipped his martini, then suddenly launched into a soliloquy of criticism of Dr. David A. Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
"He's too activist regarding tobacco," the doctor said. "He's hell-bent on banning cigarettes and all tobacco products, no matter what he says."
"Are you suggesting that tobacco products are not extremely harmful to the health of millions of Americans?" I asked.
"Hell no!" he replied. "Smoking cigarettes clearly causes lung cancer. It damages people's hearts. Nicotine is clearly addictive, no matter what the tobacco industry says. Second-hand smoke is a nasty nuisance, and I think harmful to those exposed to it for sustained periods of time."
"Then why shouldn't Commissioner Kessler be super-active in trying to protect the people from tobacco products he knows are killers?" I asked.
"Because government can't -- and shouldn't -- ban everything that people do, eat or drink that scientists show is not good for them," the doctor replied. "I'm drinking booze, which I know and most other Americans know is harmful to health -- probably more harmful than nicotine. But we found years ago that the yearning for alcohol was so strong that government could not effectively prohibit it. About 45 million Americans still smoke, and the government ought not try to stop them by fiat.
"We've had a lot of talk lately about a person's right to die," the doctor continued. "Well, if I have a right to die, don't I have a right to go out enjoying my favorite pleasure -- gin, sex, Marlboros, eating two steaks and eight eggs a day?"
My doctor friend seemed like a crazy libertarian, or a jester forcing me to try to define the limits of personal freedom. But I see him as a serious, articulate reflection of the confusion and conflict that bedevil Americans who more and more question the role of government in the most intimate aspects of their lives.
So far there is nothing illegal about smoking tobacco, but our jails and prisons are loaded with young people who smoked marijuana, which may be no more harmful.
We do not want our kids to smoke, and we do not want human barbecue pits blowing their acrid fumes on us in public places. Yet, we seek to ease our trade deficits by subsidizing cigarette sales abroad, including advertising that so far has made walking chimneys of huge percentages of Japanese and other Asians.
Is the tobacco fight simply about money? Is it about the greed of Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and other tobacco companies? These companies say that all they are doing is selling pleasure, just like the neighborhood ice cream parlor or the church with the bingo games.
Note, though, that in order to get Dr. Kessler and assorted congressmen such as Democrat Henry A. Waxman of California off theircases, leaders of the tobacco industry now talk of compromises. In order to spare teen-agers the curse of nicotine addiction, the tobacco industry might agree to stop luring youngsters with advertisements featuring athletic heroes and comic-strip characters; to give up the vending machines from which even a child can get a nicotine fix, and even to reduce the level of tar and nicotine in cigarettes.
But these steps to discourage smoking by teen-agers would amount to creeping economic disaster for those who for so many generations have made fortunes by peddling tobacco and its many products. I find it hard to believe that the tobacco moguls will voluntarily embrace bankruptcy, even if it arrives two generations from now.
That is why, over the next few years, my doctor friend or others will still be cursing the "activism" of Commissioner Kessler as the campaign goes on to clear tobacco smoke from our workplaces, restaurants, airliners, buses and even our bedrooms and dining rooms. And millions of Americans will be praising Dr. Kessler, saying that if government does not curb the nicotine peril, who will?
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.