Hypocrisy and tobacco


WASHINGTON -- If you click your way through cable TV land, you're bound to run across a World War II movie in which a soldier, dying for a smoke, smokes while he's dying.

In such scenes, somebody nice, like William Bendix in "Wake Island," has been mauled by enemy fire and isn't going to make it. His last words to his squad are punctuated by puffs on a cigarette being held for him by a buddy.

You have to wonder what President Clinton might be thinking when he watches such episodes.

Can Mr. Clinton possibly see a link between smoking in wartime in years gone by and his rejuvenated war on the tobacco companies?

Standing behind a podium in the Rose Garden, Mr. Clinton proclaimed: "The tobacco companies should answer to the taxpayers for their actions." He was voicing his support for a federal lawsuit that accuses the tobacco industry of engaging in "fraud and deceit" over the perils of smoking.

As it happens, I was a taxpayer, although not much of one, when my government superiors strongly urged me to start smoking. "Smoke 'em if you got 'em," the drill sergeants would tell us back in the 1950s at Fort Dix, N.J. Standing around without a cigarette in hand could lead to orders to do something useful, like scrubbing pots.

Having initially learned from the government that smoking could be good for you, we had to wait for nearly a decade until government, in the person of the U.S. surgeon general, told us that smoking could kill you.

Any chance government's suit will take note that from Civil War times until 1956, federal law required the military to provide nearly free supplies of tobacco to enlisted personnel?

As you might expect, current government tobacco subsidies also go unmentioned in the lawsuit.

Nor will you see anything in the papers filed in the courthouse about Mr. Clinton's move last year to strip $15 billion in medical care and disability pay to veterans harmed by smoking. Congress went along because it was deemed the best way to enact a $203 billion highway bill and still stay within fixed spending ceilings.

The supposed rationale for this move: Military personnel were never required to smoke but did so by choice, as if they had chosen to consume alcohol. But that's not how some veterans recall it.

In a bid to pacify the dying veterans whose care was cut off, a provision was put in that huge highway bill that directed the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Justice Department to sue the tobacco industry to pay for veterans' smoking-related illnesses.

Now that the federal government has acted, perhaps they can make a movie. Doug McClure, a one-time sidekick of Bendix and the star of such dramas as "The Virginian," would have been good in the Clinton role. But he died of lung cancer, at age 59, in 1995.

Andrew J. Glass is a Washington-based columnist for Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 9/27/99

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