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Politics supersedes public health

By Richard E. Ralston
web posted June 15, 2009

Public health authorities in California have for years spent many millions of dollars on television commercials that are supposed to help people quit smoking. Perhaps that is better than spending income from tobacco settlements and taxes intended for that purpose on completely unrelated government programs, as is the case in many states. The curious thing about almost all of these commercials is that they provide no guidance whatsoever about how to stop smoking. Smokers watching these commercials would not know if anyone involved with public health in California cares if they live or die.

These commercials use actors as stock villains to present a different message: the only reason that anyone smokes is because tobacco companies are evil — as are, by implication, all corporations. No one is responsible for his own smoking. The cause is corporate conspiracy. No one simply smokes because it provides mental or physical stimulation or because they like the taste. Anyone who wants to find ways to overcome such considerations will instead learn from these commercials only how to become angry at tobacco companies and blame them for their habit.

Pre-Columbian residents of the Americas smoked tobacco before advertising was available to trick them into it. Sir Walter Raleigh and earlier visitors discovered some appeal in smoking without seeing any advertising and returned to Europe. Yet California has never produced a commercial condemning Native Americans for exporting the use of tobacco that led to the deaths of uncounted millions of Europeans, Africans and Asians — or for selling tax-free cigarettes in their casinos today.

Of course, there are other explanations for the use of tobacco. More than thirty years ago, I stopped smoking cigarettes while serving in the U.S. Army in Germany. During field exercise in a cold, rainy forest, the Army kindly provided some cigarettes with my field rations, and I started smoking again. I quit again in a few months even though cigarettes were conveniently available for $1.50 a carton at a nearby Post Exchange.

It should also be noted that the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Congress did their bit, beginning with the New Deal and continuing for the rest of the 20th Century, by providing many billions in crop subsidies to bring more tobacco to market and keep the cost down for smokers. Strangely, government officials in California have never produced a commercial pointing an accusing finger at government officials for introducing millions of people to the dangers of smoking cigarettes.

All of my life I have been exposed to motion pictures and television programming that romanticized smoking as the stylish, the sexy, the mature, the young, the adventurous and even the healthy thing to do. Tobacco company advertising did not cause that but enormously benefited from and rode the wave it created. Yet California officials do not have commercials on television bitterly condemning either highly paid actors or greedy Hollywood producers for the deaths that might be laid at their door.

No one should be deceived by government agencies who find the pursuit of an anti-business ideological agenda to be a far higher priority than improving public health. They share their callous priorities with those in Congress and federal regulators who would rather see patients suffer and die without the development of new medications than allow a drug company or its investors to make money creating them.

The lesson here is if you want to stop smoking, don't curse the tobacco companies as you choke on their products. Don't even curse the government. Just stop smoking.

It is unfortunate that you will not get any help from government ads. Politicians will continue eagerly to take your tobacco tax dollars and spend them elsewhere to best serve their political careers. That is the way it is with politicians and their appointees.

A political approach to public health inevitably places politics ahead of health. Instead we need to breathe the free air of an environment that allows the best science to inform the decisions of each of us as physicians and patients. We need to look after our own health and defend our right to conduct our individual lives. ESR

Richard E. Ralston is Executive Director of Americans for Free Choice in Medicine, Newport Beach, California. Copyright © 2009 Americans for Free Choice in Medicine. All rights reserved.


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