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Should We Outlaw Smoking?

August 1995

For decades scientists have noted significant correlations between smoking and lung cancer, and for years they have publicized that information, characterizing the cigarette as addictive and deadly. In 1956, for example, in "Lung Cancer and Smoking: What We Really Know," Dr. Charles S. Cameron, then the director of the American Cancer Society, marshaled evidence from the lung-cancer research of the time to argue provocatively and convincingly that smoking constituted a likely causal factor in an overwhelming proportion of the nation's then inexplicably increasing number of lung-cancer cases. Cameron framed his argument as an alert of sorts to the public--as a fulfillment of the American Cancer Society's stated belief in the duty of "stewards of the public welfare" to investigate and inform the general public regarding matters of vital relevance to life and health.

Yet despite the many warnings, only recently has government at both the national and local levels begun to take decisive action aimed at eradicating smoking for good. Ever more stringent and pervasive laws prohibiting smoking in certain areas and at certain times now indicate a climate of growing intolerance for the practice. And President Clinton's call for the Food and Drug Administration to classify nicotine as a drug and to prohibit advertising aimed at children suggests an intention to deny the tobacco industry access to its largest reservoir of potential new smokers.

Why has it taken so long? After years of public awareness of the dangers of smoking, why is government only now beginning to take such decisive action toward abolishing smoking? The debate has tended to focus--explicitly, at least--on the matter of proving a cause-and-effect link between cigarettes and cancer. But as the articles assembled here suggest, the debate on that seemingly straightforward issue is inextricably bound up with, and often serves as an obscuring screen for, a host of other issues.

Many--tobacco-industry tycoons and struggling farmers alike--have a financial stake in maintaining the legitimacy of smoking. Others adamantly believe in the inviolability of individual liberty--that since cigarette use has not definitively been proven automatically to result in every smoker's death (or even ill-health), government interference in a person's choice whether to smoke represents a grave constitutional infringement. Still others argue on a less abstract and principled level that they simply like to smoke and resent being lectured about the evils of tobacco and being told when and where they may smoke.

Elizabeth Drew's 1965 Atlantic article "The Quiet Victory of the Tobacco Lobby: How It Found the Best Filter Yet--Congress" explains how businesspeople with vested interests in the continued prosperity of the tobacco industry exploit their high-level political connections and devise ingenious political maneuvers in an attempt to influence government policy toward smoking. Judson Gooding's 1992 Atlantic article France: An Ambivalent War Against Smoking" shows how in France similar factors are now operating to stymie anti-smoking legislation. He points out that in France, though, the vested interest resides not with outside lobbyists, but, paradoxically, within the government itself, which owns the nation's cigarette-manufacturing monopoly and reaps substantial tax revenues from cigarettes. At the same time, the government pays the heavy health and social costs that derive from smoking.

An article by the tobacco-industry-supported researcher Clarence Cook Little titled "The Public and Smoking: Fear or Calm Deliberation?" (originally published in the December, 1957, issue of The Atlantic), which attempts to refute a definitive smoking/cancer correlation, and the outraged response Little's research elicited from Dr. David D. Rutstein-- ("An Open Letter to Dr. Clarence Cook Little," published in the October, 1957, issue of The Atlantic)--demonstrate the vehemence brought to the debate over smoking by parties on both sides of the argument. In the early years of research into the smoking question, even those whose scientific objectivity was not filtered through the potentially distorting lens of tobacco-industry funding sometimes found legitimate reason to question the validity of the hypothesized smoking hazard. A study undertaken by Harvard anthropologist Carl C. Seltzer indicated that certain people may be biologically predisposed to the smoking habit. In "Why People Smoke" (published in the July, 1962, issue of The Atlantic) Seltzer speculated that perhaps the same factors responsible for an innate predisposition to smoking might also be responsible for an increased susceptibility to lung cancer, thereby undermining claims of a definitive cause-and-effect relationship between smoking and cancer.

Charles W. Morton's untitled "Accent on Living" piece (published in the April, 1957, issue of The Atlantic), which recounts his experience quitting smoking, highlights the fact that while smoking may constitute a "phenomenon" to be tackled by government policy and institutional research, it is also a personal habit to be enjoyed, battled with, and (perhaps) eventually destroyed on an immediate experiential level by each smoker. Whatever transpires on a grand scale at the level of business, science, and politics ends up affecting the lives of a large number of individuals.

We've added a final article that demonstrates the longevity of the controversy over tobacco use. As David W. Cheever's 1860 article "Tobacco" recounts, tobacco use has been a highly contested practice since it was first adopted by western culture in the 1500s. Through the ages it has been outlawed by popes, kings, shahs, and sultans as a crime punishable by excommunication, execution, mutilation, and even (in Turkey) skewering of the nose by one's own pipe. As public opinion swings back toward opposition to the practice, perhaps our government will take its cue from the harsher policies of other cultures and ages past.

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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