Anti-smoking crowd must push moral issue


WITH Congress debating tobacco legislation, cigarette companies are waging a publicity war against anti-smoking advocates. They claim new taxes and restrictions will devastate tobacco farmers, create a black market and impinge on smokers' freedom.

Tobacco companies are attempting to seize the moral high ground from anti-smoking advocates. According to Big Tobacco, those who insist on severe restrictions on their products are somehow unpatriotic. By implication, anti-smoking "zealots" threaten small farmers, free-market capitalism and fundamental personal liberties.

Since the 1960s, medical groups have sought tougher regulations on tobacco products. Worried about lung cancer and heart disease associated with cigarettes, anti-smoking forces based their arguments against tobacco on health grounds.

Western ways

This resonated with progressive, health-conscious Americans. As a result, restrictive anti-smoking legislation succeeded in western states -- states often opposed to legislating lifestyle. Thus, throughout the West, anti-smoking laws passed because they reflected larger cultural mores.

The anti-smoking cause also took a lesson from Prohibition's failure -- "you can't legislate morality." Hoping to succeed, anti-smoking advocates sought to avoid moral arguments. Rather, they focused on a pervasive, secular concern -- health.

Although initially successful, if the anti-smoking crusade continues this strategy, it will fail. Yes, it is a health issue. However, health issues resonate with only certain regions, classes and types of Americans. Thus, the health argument possesses limited appeal. The recent cigar craze and increased smoking among college students indicate that appeal may be waning. This month's congressional hearings may actually represent the Gettysburg of American anti-smoking.

Although most people are reluctant to admit it, smoking is a moral issue. Following the historical pattern of U.S. reform movements, whoever wins the moral argument will win the political one. Big Tobacco seems to have realized this -- its new defense implies smoking is a patriotic and moral choice. Anti-smoking proponents must frame a corresponding moral argument as part of their effort to reduce -- and eventually eliminate -- smoking.

In the evangelical church where I grew up, no one said smoking was immoral. Instead, the pastor said smoking harmed the body -- "the temple of the Holy Spirit." Even this conservative church appealed to health -- not morality -- as the basis of anti-smoking, thus capitulating to the cultural argument and failing to mount a theological one.

Tobacco Road runs through the heart of the Bible Belt, making many church leaders uncomfortable proclaiming smoking a sin. This, combined with Prohibition fears, muted the moral arguments surrounding anti-smoking. Doctors -- not churches -- started the anti-smoking movement.

Neither Prohibition nor theological ineptitude, however, should silence the anti-smoking crusade. "You can't legislate morality" is facile and historically inaccurate. Prohibition proves you can legislate morality -- it was enacted after a protracted moral debate regarding alcohol. Temperance crusaders convinced most Americans that alcohol was bad.

Prohibition's successes

Prohibition failed only in its implementation. What followed Prohibition shows the strength of the moral argument. Most Americans still believe alcohol is, in some way, bad or harmful. As a poisonous drug, it should be used only by adults within legal and social parameters. Beyond that, alcohol is morally, emotionally and physically deleterious. It is wrong to use alcohol illegally, compulsively or abusively. Prohibition only proved there are successful and unsuccessful ways to legislate morality.

Theological ineptitude, however, is a different issue. Conservatives, like the evangelicals I knew as a teen-ager, tend to identify nonsmoking with personal morality and individual holiness. Therefore, it becomes difficult to mobilize a conservative Christian anti-smoking crusade and causes the legislative argument to fall upon deaf ears in regions embedded in evangelical culture.

Religious liberals have traditionally seen little wrong with smoking or have swallowed the Prohibition argument. However, in recent years, they have become increasingly uncomfortable with the tobacco lobby and its apparent duplicity.

Dignity of man

If tobacco companies produce a product that results in mass addiction and death, then we -- people of all faiths -- must protest. Cigarettes are not about American values and free choice. Rather, tobacco companies violate the fundamental theological nature of humanity -- they fail to respect the dignity of men and women created in God's image. Tobacco companies && sin -- they invent, produce and market a product that undercuts real freedom and human life.

Respecting the dignity of every person. Free to live without addiction. Just free to live. This is the morality of the anti-smoking campaign. It isn't anti-smoking, it is pro-life.

Where's the moral high ground? Why not ask my father? After trying to quit smoking for two decades, he probably will not see his grandchild grow up because of the cancer fighting for his lungs. Ask him next time he lights up a cigarette.

Diana Butler Bass is associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.

Pub Date: 5/22/98

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