Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: Tobacco settlement is just blowing smoke

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at 76710.3306(AT)

UNDATED _ Tip O’Neill, the former Massachusetts congressman and Speaker of the House, used to say that all politics is local. So, it turns out, is smoking.

That’s why much of the”deal”worked out recently between the tobacco companies and the various attorneys general is mostly nonsense. The proposed settlement, if ratified by Congress, would slap strict controls on the way cigarettes are made and marketed and provide billions in compensation to states for smoking-related health costs.

But it’s unlikely to change any behavior.

Men and women start smoking as teens for a variety of reasons: their friends smoke; they don’t want to seem outside the”in”group; it looks”cool”; and it’s a form of rebellion.

Now, it has always been part of American thinking that if people are educated and enlightened about an issue, they will take the moral high road and engage in”proper”behavior. For smoking, the thinking goes like this: Remove the tempting ads, provide anti-smoking classes in school, stamp dire warnings on cigarette packs in large letters, and Americans will respond like logical, sensible human beings.

But there is abundant evidence that this approach is foolish. Take a look at sex education, driver’s education, drug education, and alcohol education. It doesn’t work. Teen peer pressure tends to overpower education of any and every stripe.

Consider the most serious smoking threat among youth: the persistent increase in the proportion of teen-age women who smoke. Will getting rid of Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man reduce smoking among young women? Will they even notice the removal of smoking ads from sports arenas or the barring of tobacco companies’ sponsorship of auto races?

And how effective is warning young women that smoking may cause lung cancer that could kill them in 40 years? Gimme a break! What teen-age woman thinks she’s ever going to die!

So the whole education program is a fraud, perhaps an unintended and even well-meaning fraud, but nonetheless a fraud that will have virtually no impact on this crucial group.

But there’s a simple, easy way to discourage young people from taking up the ugly habit: make it expensive by slapping a heavy tax on every pack of cigarettes.

What if a pack costs, let’s say, $15 instead of $2? If a young woman smokes a pack a day, that’s more than a $100 a week, or $5,460 a year. That tidy sum will surely cut into the number of outfits she is able to impulse buy as she strolls through the local mall.

Responsible research shows the demand for cigarettes is elastic. Demand goes down as the price goes up. Make the price high enough and the demand will fall. Money is a very powerful motive for curing addiction. A sky-high tax on cigarettes might not solve completely the problem of smoking teens, but it would notably diminish it. And it wouldn’t require another monumental bureaucracy to administer it either.

Alas, this idea will never come to fruition because too many hypocrites in Congress are owned by the tobacco companies. Indeed, most of the so-called settlement with the tobacco companies will never even get through Congress because these days nothing gets through Congress unless it benefits the rich and/or sticks it to the poor.

The settlement is much ado about nothing, a media event that will only delay real reform.

I would like to pin the blame on the Republican Congress for its support of these death-dealing industries. But the Democratic opposition isn’t much better. Until the public demands that its elected representatives deal decisively with the death industries, nothing is going to change.