No If’s, And’s, or Butts

Last week President Clinton announced, with much fanfare, an initiative to snuff out teen smoking. Among other things, the president wants to ban cigarette vending machines and force tobacco companies to cough up $150 million a year to tell kids not to smoke—in effect, to stigmatize their own product. But not everyone is cheering. "It's a ban in sheep's clothing," huffed John Fithian of the Freedom to Advertise Coalition. "We challenge the very power of the FDA to engage in this kind of rule-making," puffed cigarette company lawyer Peter Groffi. What's behind these complaints is an important question: What business is it of the government if you or I choose to smoke? The Clinton administration's answer is that if a citizen's personal conduct has an impact on the larger good, it is the government's business. As columnist George Will put it, while it's not the government's business whether or not people drink, it is the government's concern if everyone is drunk, because public safety is affected. The same argument can be applied to smoking. It may be no business of Uncle Sam if you or I puff ourselves into an early grave. But when the costs of our smoking come out of the public purse, it does become the government's business. And of course, the costs of tobacco are tremendous. Nearly 400,000 Americans die each year from smoking-related illnesses. Most of them incur large medical bills before they die. Thanks to third-party insurance, the costs are passed on to the rest of us. So I think Clinton is right to try to snuff out teenage smoking. But unfortunately, his anti-smoking proposal reeks of moral inconsistency. The Clintonites fail to apply the same kind of moral logic to other private behavior that incurs just as harmful public consequences. For example, President Clinton has strongly promoted homosexual rights. But homosexual behavior causes the spread of AIDS—a disease that will cost $2.8 billion in federal funding alone this year. And that money won't be used to close down gay bathhouses or gay bars—prime breeding grounds for AIDS transmission. Instead, much AIDS funding will teach homosexuals how to engage in dangerous behavior more "safely". Or take the issue of teen pregnancy. The Clinton administration tried to cut chastity-based family-planning programs while encouraging the increase of funding to groups that simply hand out contraceptives. But because teenagers tend not to plan for sex—and tend not to use contraceptives—the teen pregnancy rate has skyrocketed. and that's something we all end up paying for in taxes. So I think Bill Clinton is right to create stigmas against smoking. Stigmas are a way of reducing unwanted behaviors by making them socially unacceptable—even shameful. But if the government is going to concern itself with the public effects of private behavior, it ought to be consistent. We need to let Bill Clinton know that we don't want him enforcing a selective vision of morality—one that condemns the health risks of smoking while encouraging other health risks every bit as serious as AIDS and teen pregnancy. To do otherwise is to put political correctness ahead of the public good—a policy that will send public health up in smoke.


Chuck Colson


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