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SAFETY IS A RELATIVE THING FOR CARS; WHY NOT FOR CIGARETTES?

By Published on .

Safety is becoming an increasingly important concern. For cars, greater safety has meant dual air bags, anti-lock brakes and all sorts of other safety improvements. Even though the car is increasingly blamed for many urban problems, everyone likes auto safety. With cigarettes, concern for safety has accelerated in the wake of the Environmental Protection Agency's recent classification of secondhand smoke as a carcinogen. People today are at least as concerned with where smokers exhale as with what they inhale. And so we can expect reduced-smoke cigarettes to be one of the more popular innovations in the future.

Or can we? Society at large, it seems, is not uniformly tolerant of safety innovations. Volvo's recent 8-page ad in Newsweek featured 7 pages of pictures of people engaged in everyday activities and finishes: "The people on the preceding pages all share a common belief: that a car saved their lives. Volvo. Drive safely." Everyone loves the Volvo ads-perhaps because most can identify with the threat of a car accident.

So why is it that improved safety is treated so differently when the activity is smoking rather than driving? When R.J. Reynolds came out with its Premier "smokeless cigarette" several years ago, one would think the anti-smoking forces would have welcomed it. After all, here was a cigarette with virtually no sidestream smoke and no tar. Instead, they came out against it with surprising force.

Here were some of their objections: (1) Premier isn't a cigarette, it's a "nicotine delivery system." (2) Since it doesn't reduce the risk of heart disease, "it's like comparing jumping from the 10th floor of a building with jumping from the 7th floor." (3) Young people will be lulled into a false sense of security and will therefore smoke more. (4) Since there is no smoke, high school children will find it easier to smoke Premier in restrooms. (5) You can use Premier to smoke crack. (This point actually appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.)

"Cigarettes are unsafe," the anti-smoking line seemed to go, "ergo, let's ban the safer cigarette." The scary part is that even now, in the midst of debates on smoking bans in bars and restaurants, and even with secondhand smoke's deadly new status, Premier would probably still meet the same fate if it were reintroduced today.

But these same arguments are ridiculous when applied to the Volvo. How about, "The Volvo isn't safe; you can still get into an accident with it"? "The Volvo will lull people into a false sense of security, and so people, especially the young, will drive more." "High school children will find it easier to borrow their parents' Volvo." "You can smoke crack in a Volvo." And here's the clincher: "Volvo isn't a car, it's a mileage delivery system!"

Should we ban the Volvo because it makes safety claims? Any safety claim is false, the argument might go, since driving is still riskier than staying at home. (Why were those people in the ads driving anyway?) But this would be silly. Both driving and smoking are avoidable, risky activities, but freedom means freedom to make risky decisions.

Would Premier have increased smoking deaths because non- smokers would have started smoking or be cause overconfident smokers would have smoked more? Maybe. But if confident Volvo drivers got killed more often, that wouldn't stop the Volvo from being a safer car. Both the Volvo and the Premier reduce the risk of injury and death for everyone con cerned. Anything that prevents their introduction is reprehensible.

In any case, Premier is dead now; it tasted so awful that consumers likened it to something that this newspaper probably isn't allowed to print. Reynolds pulled Premier from its test markets in the early months of 1989, and it was never heard from again. But the attitude of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and of congressmen like Rep. Henry ("I want to ban them outright") Waxman helped hasten its demise.

Safety is a good thing and we should always encourage it, even when, like smoking, the activity is in political disfavor. After all, driving is politically disfavored nowadays, and we still like auto safety.

I have no problem with either driving or smoking; they are both personal choices whose external effects we can deal with without banning the whole activity. But I do have a problem with the misguided "all-or-nothing" philosophy that seems to guide the anti-smoking movement. Safer cars, as Volvo drivers know, are great. Why not safer cigarettes?

Mr. Volokh is a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, a free-market advocacy group.

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