The tobacco companies kill me. Suddenly they want to atone for their sins. They are going to stop their lying and stop trying to lure whole new generations of children into the deadly smoking habit. They are going to pull most of their advertising. They are going to fold their litigious tents and, like good citizens, obey the laws of the land. Most of all, they are willing to reach into their deep, deep pockets and pull out many billions of dollars to be used as compensation for the decades of grotesque suffering they have wrought.
The one little thing they want in return is for the Congress of the United States to pass a law granting them immunity for all their evil deeds - past, present and in the future. They want total absolution. They want the high priests of the government to provide them with an impenetrable legal shield against all of their enemies for all time.
We are being told that this represents some kind of major surrender by big tobacco, that the weight of endless lawsuits and adverse public opinion have finally brought the companies to their knees. That’s a funny one. Tobacco stocks surged at the mere mention of a legal settlement and possible immunity. And if you listen closely you can hear tobacco executives snickering and giggling like Beavis and Butthead at this latest scam they are offering the public.
Fewer people were killed by the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki than are killed each year in the United States by big tobacco. Around the world, the annual death toll from smoking is in the millions. In the face of these extremes of premature death (which will continue as far into the future as we can see), there is no good reason to grant immunity or any other concessions conjured up by the great tobacco companies and their bought-and-paid-for politicians.
The American people owe the tobacco companies nothing. The companies have never shown so much as a sliver of mercy to the consumers they have tried so relentlessly and successfully to hook. Tobacco executives continue to insist that it has not been proved that cigarettes cause cancer. And they sat brazenly before Congress three years ago and declared under oath that they did not believe nicotine was addictive.
We should make a deal with this crowd? A deal that drives their stock prices up? A deal that leaves them laughing hysterically all the way to the bank?
“Here you have an industry that acted as badly as any industry in the history of our country,” said Phil Schiliro, an aide to Rep. Henry Waxman of California, a Democrat who has long been outraged by the behavior of the tobacco companies and their lobbyists. “The companies had evidence that their product killed people. They deceived Congress and the public about that evidence. They kept it completely hidden. And now the reward they seek is immunity.”
If government leaders are as concerned as they say about raising money to offset the astounding costs associated with tobacco-related illnesses, there is a simple solution: Slap a bigger tax on cigarettes. Congress could and should do this without negotiating with the tobacco companies. Excise taxes on cigarettes are much lower in the United States than in Canada or Europe. So many politicians are in the pockets of big tobacco (rooting around among those billions) that it has been impossible to get the taxes up where they should be.
In addition to the immunity issue, the settlement proposals currently floating about would protect the companies from regulation of their product as a drug delivery device. We all know that it’s the intensely addictive quality of nicotine that puts such a stranglehold on smokers. That’s how the money is made. Nicotine is the agent that keeps the customers coming back for more.
The tobacco companies can’t bear to admit this.
“The companies don’t want nicotine to be seen as a drug,” noted Allison Zieve, a lawyer with the consumer group Public Citizen. “But nicotine is a drug. And if the Food and Drug Administration gets the authority to regulate tobacco but can’t address nicotine, then that would be a big setback to the effort to curb smoking.”
Curb smoking? There’s that snickering and giggling again.
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