A Letter From the Editor

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I learned a valuable lesson last month: Short of garrotting blind puppies or maybe stealing a Florida election, nothing whips more people into a frenzy than saying that even tobacco advertisers have rights. So the letters flew fast and furious after my previous column. If you're late to the bloodbath, here's a quick recap of what I wrote.

Lawmakers here and abroad are ordering tobacco makers to cover packs of cigarettes with graphic photos of diseased lungs and cancerous mouths. I have two problems with that. For starters, lots of products, including hamburgers and bourbon, are Bad For You when not used in moderation, and we don't require their manufacturers to sticker them with color pictures of, respectively, liposuction surgery and shriveled human livers. Also, although I readily acknowledge that tobacco companies are about as trustworthy and reliable as Robert Downey Jr. on vacation in Bogota, those in the U.S. still have certain inalienable free-speech rights under the Constitution. That includes protection against compelled speech - in other words, Washington bureaucrats are not supposed to make you say anything against your will. It happens to be the country's highest law.

I might as well have written that I'm planning to inject pregnant seals with Clorox. The angry mail I received boiled down to three key points.

One: But tobacco is addictive, you nincompoop, and hamburgers are not. To which I say, have you had a Whopper lately? One bite and you're hooked! But seriously: it's a valid point. Cigarettes are a hard habit to kick. I know. I've done it. But it seems that none of the letter-writers care to look at addiction's broader picture. That is, no one addressed the more-to-the-point comparison with alcohol. Beer, wine, and liquor can create a terrible dependency. Alcoholics Anonymous has roughly 1.2 million members and 51,151 self-help groups in the U.S. alone (and that's just the people who've owned up to having a drinking problem). Given the addictiveness of alcohol, should liquor makers and brewers be forced to festoon their packaging with images of Bowery bums and battered wives? My vote is, Absolut-ly not. Your preference may vary - and if it does, you are obviously more comfortable than I am with a government that can order people to say things they don't want to say and don't believe in.

Two: What the hell are you smoking? Tobacco merchants are proven liars. Next you'll be saying that crack dealers or child pornographers have rights, too. I swear that's what a few people wrote. Never mind that crack and kiddie porn are illegal and tobacco clearly isn't. Never mind that yes, even criminals can rightly claim constitutional protections (it's what sets the civilized world apart from places like Afghanistan and China).

Three: Hey, numbnuts, tobacco happens to be the only product that kills people who don't even use it. Wrong. In the U.S., almost 16,000 people die in alcohol-related traffic accidents every year. Most are killed because of someone else's stupid decision to drink and drive. I don't see Congress ordering Budweiser to slap photos of car wrecks and mangled bodies all over the bottle. And let me toss out a fascinating fact here: according to The Book of Risks, a most instructive tome by statistician Larry Laudan, eating one pork chop a week, or drinking two glasses of OJ a month, is more likely to give you cancer than habitually spending time in a roomful of smokers.

Finally, I'll hazard a guess that 90-plus percent of people who say they're concerned about second-hand smoke drive cars (after all, in this country, we are positively addicted to driving). Anything wrong with your legs? Every automotive trip to the corner drugstore or the post office down the road does more damage to innocent bystanders' lungs than the second-hand smoke from a cigarette. Yet, strangely, car manufacturers have yet to be bullied and badgered the way cigarette makers routinely are - and no driver is treated with the kind of hostility reserved for those who dare to derive pleasure from smoking.

Second-hand smoke is a red herring as big as Moby Dick. Call me reckless (heck, call me Ishmael), but I'm going to continue ingesting pork chops, orange juice, herring, gin-and-tonics, whale meat, whatever. And if, God forbid, I inadvertently catch a whiff of someone's cigarette, or of your car's exhaust smoke as you drive four blocks to the drugstore to buy some Twinkies and a sixpack, I promise I won't whine or call a personal injury lawyer. Life's too short to worry about death risks that are, by most accounts, infinitesimal.

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