WASHINGTON -- Say, sport, have you got a coffin nail on you?" asks a character in an O. Henry short story written in 1906. The New Dictionary of American Slang dates the phrase "coffin nail" from the late 19th century. Which fact indicates that the government, in its suit against the tobacco companies, is committing the sin-- fraud -- that it supposedly is suing about.
Let us stipulate that the companies, without which the world would be better, have been deceitful about the addictiveness and harmfulness of cigarettes. But to prove fraud, government must show that its tobacco policy has been substantially affected by the companies' duplicities, and that the companies prevented government and the public from knowing the truth. Good luck.
The government says, with a straight face: "Members of the public believed in the truth and completeness of the statements made by" the companies, and "relied upon the statements . . . and demonstrated that reliance by purchasing and smoking cigarettes, and by refraining from trying to quit or reduce their consumption of cigarettes." But there are about as many former smokers as smokers in America, and history suggests why.
"In my early youth, I was addicted to tobacco," wrote former President John Quincy Adams in 1845, not in doubt about the addictiveness of tobacco, as many other people have not been in doubt, despite the tobacco companies' contrary assertions.
After the Civil War, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison adopted some new causes, including abolition of tobacco. Is it plausible to say that the companies' behavior explains the fact that it was not until the 1970s that the military stopped providing free cigarettes to its personnel?
The government included cigarettes in combat rations in both world wars. But as early as 1892 the New York Times reported that because of health concerns the Senate "has received a constant stream of petitions against cigarettes."
In a 1900 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that "we should be shutting our eyes to what is constantly passing before them were we to affect an ignorance of the fact that a belief in [cigarettes'] deleterious effects, particularly on young people, has become very general, and that communications are constantly finding their way into the public press denouncing their uses as fraught with great danger. . . ."
The government, which now blames tobacco companies' duplicities for some substantial public health costs, has, since the 1964 Surgeon General's report, officially certified cigarettes as dangerous. For more than three decades, the government has required increasingly stern health warnings to be printed on cigarette packs and advertising. Of course this government still subsidizes the growing of tobacco, and writes budgets with billions of tobacco tax revenues assumed.
Government pretends to be in a moral meltdown over fraud by the tobacco industry. The supposed fraud is a 45-year conspiracy (starting with a meeting of tobacco companies' executives in Manhattan's Plaza Hotel in 1953) to deny what most sentient people have surmised, with progressive certainty, for a lot longer than 45 years -- that cigarettes are dangerous enough to be called "coffin nails."
The government's suit seeks recompense from tobacco companies for expenditures the government, because of the companies' fraud, incurred treating smoking-related illnesses. Well. The government knows something about tobacco-related fraud.
Hundreds of jurisdictions have banned indoor smoking, partly because of a 1993 Environmental Protection Agency report that environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) kills 3,000 Americans a year.
In 1998, a federal judge accused the EPA of "cherry picking" the data for the report, and said the EPA: "publicly committed to a conclusion before research had begun"; violated procedural requirements in the pertinent law by excluding input from the tobacco industry; "adjusted established procedure and scientific norms to validate the Agency's public conclusion"; did not "disseminate significant epidemiologic information"; "deviated from its Risk Assessment Guidelines"; and "failed to disclose important findings and reasoning."
EPA's fraud was minor compared with the government's pretense that smoking costs it money. Various studies demonstrate that government reaps substantial savings because of the premature deaths of smokers who (by the way, cigarettes are the most heavily taxed consumer good) collect few if any retirement, health care and nursing home benefits.
When you hear a figure like 427,743 "premature" deaths from smoking (according to the Centers for Disease Control, that is the annual average, 1990-94), bear in mind that nearly 60 percent of those deaths were people 70 or older, nearly 45 percent were people over 75, nearly 17 percent were people over 85. With what certainty in those cases can the government establish "smoking-attributable mortality"?
But, then, one certainty is that accuracy is not the hallmark of the government's tobacco policy.
George F. Will writes a syndicated column.