published Sunday, March 6th, 2011

Conflicting messages on tobacco

No one needs to apologize for pointing out the grave health dangers of smoking, or for trying to persuade loved ones never to take up that awful habit.

But the Obama administration is trying to have it both ways with the tobacco industry. On one hand, it wants the billions of dollars in revenue produced by a $1-per-pack federal tax on cigarettes. That tax funds a children’s health insurance program. But on the other hand, the Justice Department is trying to “kneecap” tobacco companies by forcing them to pay for a print and broadcast ad campaign telling the public, in effect, that the industry’s deliberate goal is to harm people.

Here are a couple of the so-called “corrective statements” that the Justice Department wants to require the tobacco industry to run in the ads:

• “We falsely marketed low tar and light cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes to keep people smoking and sustain our profits.”

• “For decades, we denied that we controlled the level of nicotine delivered in cigarettes. Here’s the truth. ... We control nicotine delivery to create and sustain smokers’ addiction, because that’s how we keep customers coming back.”

Even if each of these and the dozen other “statements” the administration wants to force tobacco companies to promote were completely true, it is contradictory for Washington to force a company to undermine its legal products while at the same time the government collects massive tax revenue from the sale of those products.

Ironically, if the administration manages to destroy tobacco companies and the thousands of jobs they support, it will lose the very revenue it relies upon to pay for the children’s health insurance program. That will mean bigger deficits as the government has to borrow money to support the program.

Full, factual disclosure of the harm of tobacco is entirely appropriate. But forcing a company, in effect, to declare itself evil — while its products remain fully legal — is not.

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