A Letter From the Editor

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How do you sell a product that has the potential to kill? By focusing consumers' attention on the benefits, not the negatives. That's not unethical, that's human nature, and it makes a great deal of sense to me.

Take fatty foods. Candy bars and hamburgers, when not consumed in moderation, will cause obesity, clog up your arteries, and lead to health problems and premature death. Hershey and McDonald's won't tell you that. Their advertising implies instead that if you consume their products, you will feel happily satiated, your energy level will go through the roof, you'll find everlasting love in the arms of Sarah Michelle Gellar, or whatever the brief du jour dictates.

And that's fine, I think. Par for the course. Sensible people accept that Ronald McDonald and Everett Koop reason from opposite angles, and that both of them have something legitimate to say. Most of us would be rightly appalled if Congress ordered the burger giant to show us, in its advertising and packaging, graphic pictures of blood-splattered slaughterhouses or open heart surgeries.

But that's precisely what cigarette makers are being forced to do in Canada. New legislation there seeks to browbeat smokers into quitting by showing them color photographs of diseased heart and cancerous lungs - pictures that take up a mandatory 50 percent of the package. It's further evidence of two disturbing trends: the systematic humiliation of smokers by governments and public health bullies, and the elimination of free-speech rights for manufacturers of controversial products.

Now, it's hard to come to the defense of the tobacco lobby. Philip Morris et al have created a culture of mendacity that makes other famous liars, from Jim Bakker to Bill Clinton, seem like paragons of virtue. But that doesn't change the fact that cigarette makers run a legal business. Yes, smoking is bad for you, and it can kill. So what? The same can be said for alcohol. And for receiving repeated blows to the head, as in boxing. And for bungee-jumping. And for racing fast cars (just ask Dale Earnhardt's family). I thought this country was all about personal choice and rugged individualism. Why not support everybody's right to choose whatever makes them happy, even if it probably shortens their time on Earth? That's got my vote. Live and let live. Or live and let die, as the case may be.

The other right that's under assault - and this one bothers me even more - is one supposedly covered by the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to not only guarantee freedom of speech; it is also a defense against compelled speech. In other words, the government can't force you to say something you don't believe in. For some reason, though, tobacco manufacturers seem to be exempt from that constitutional protection. State and federal officials have severely limited where, when and how cigarette advertising can be shown. With the introduction of mandatory warning messages on the package, they've also forced cigarette makers to speak out against their own products. The Canadian example, shown above, shows how disgustingly far such folly can go.

Elsewhere, lawmakers are caught up in a similar frenzy. Last December, the European Parliament approved a proposal to cover at least 30 percent of each pack of cigarettes with graphic warnings (though health ministers in the 15 member countries might still tone down the plan). Russia's Duma pushed through a law last month that outlaws tobacco ads from print media, billboards, and public transportation. (Cigarette spots were already banned from Russian television.)

Such censorship doesn't surprise me from a country where communists still wield a great deal of power. It is a bit puzzling, though, to find it in a part of the world that professes to let citizens make up their own minds about what they want to say, write, read, eat, drink, and smoke.

Newsflash: advertisers are citizens too.

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