The ashtray may soon be a collector's item. The nation's 50 million smokers are feeling like an oppressed minority. Tobacco-control advocates have snuffed out cigarettes in airplanes, theaters, ball parks and shopping malls. Many cities prohibit smoking in restaurants and other public places.
Congress is now considering a hefty tax increase on cigarettes, a nationwide workplace smoking ban and legislation to put the sale and manufacture of tobacco products under the regulation of the Food and Drug Administration. The states of Florida and Mississippi are suing tobacco companies to recover costs of treating diseases caused by smoking. Even the military, home of "Smoke 'em if you've got 'em," has prohibited puffing in all but a few designated areas. To paraphrase a famous cigarette ad: We've come a long way, baby.
These accomplishments to curb tobacco use are even more remarkable considering the strength of the tobacco industry. The tobacco lobby is one of the most powerful and well-funded--in 1991, tobacco interests spent $2.7 million on lobbying and campaign contributions in California alone. That lobby reflects the earning power of the business--in 1992, a tobacco and food conglomerate, Philip Morris, was the most profitable in America, with nearly two-thirds of its almost $5 billion in profit coming from tobacco sales.
One of tobacco's most vocal foes wears one of its most familiar names. In 1911, R.J. Reynolds created Camel cigarettes--the fastest-selling brand in the country today. And R.J.'s grandson, Patrick Reynolds, 45, works full time as a lecturer and crusader against the cigarette industry--financing his ventures, in part, with an inheritance rooted in the tobacco fields of North Carolina.
When Reynolds was a teen-ager, his father died of emphysema. Even that didn't stop the young Reynolds from taking up the tobacco habit. He finally kicked it in the mid-'80s, after selling all his tobacco stock. In 1986, he shocked his family by testifying on Capitol Hill in favor of a ban on cigarette advertising, and quickly became a spokesperson for the growing tobacco-control movement.
Before finding his calling as an anti-smoking crusader, Reynolds was an aspiring actor. He uses his thespian skills and his famous name to hold the media's attention and keep tobacco executives' feet to the fire. He works out of a modest home in Beverly Hills, where he talked about the tobacco industry's impressive political power and his vision of a smoke-free America.
Question: There has been all this activity--congressional hearings, FDA proposals to regulate smoking, workplace smoking bans. Have we reached some sort of critical mass in the anti-smoking movement?
Answer: I really hope so. I've been calling for FDA regulation of cigarettes for a long time, and now we have an FDA administrator, David Kessler, who's saying the same thing. He says he's prepared to show that cigarette manufacturers manipulate the levels of nicotine in their products, and he's waiting for a mandate from Congress.
The greatest thing that will come out of FDA regulation is that manufacturers will have to print the ingredients on the packs--so that people will know what chemicals they are ingesting when they smoke. Meanwhile, (Rep.) Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) has a bill to ban smoking in the workplace. That would be a national ban, and, of course, the tobacco industry is fighting it tooth and nail, with all their power and might.
But the core issue, as I see it, is the power of the tobacco lobby . . . . Look what they have achieved. America has the lowest cigarette tax of any industrialized country in the world. It averages about 50 cents a pack; in Canada, it's $3.26 a pack. We've failed to ban cigarette advertising--cigarettes are the most heavily advertised product in America. The tobacco industry is spending somewhere around $4 billion a year to associate smoking with images of health and beauty and romance. Cigarette advertising is the greatest lie in history. They're spending $15 per person, for every man, woman and child in this country, to promote smoking. And they spend freely to make sure an advertising ban will never make it out of committee in Congress.
They are very much around at the local level, too. The tobacco lobby sends slick lawyers into state capitals to get watered-down anti-smoking legislation passed that preempts many of the local anti-smoking ordinances we have worked so hard to put into law.
Exporting of cigarettes to Asia--again the special interests are responsible for that, for hundreds of millions of people becoming addicted in those countries.
Back in the 1980s, Sen. Jesse Helms went to see President Reagan, and said, "We've got a balance-of-payments problem here, Ron; how come we can't sell American cigarettes in some of these foreign markets?" So Reagan got the government to start pressing the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan and said, "If you don't lower your tariffs on our cigarettes, we're going to slap trade penalties on you."
Those governments caved in, lowered their import taxes on cigarettes, and then the American tobacco industry began a full-scale ad campaign in those countries. Partly as a result, smoking has increased 70% around the world since 1968. So while people think we are somehow winning the battle against smoking, we're actually losing when you look at it worldwide . . . . But the real critical mass--the paradigm shift--may be political. For years, politicians have been able to accept huge amounts of money from the tobacco lobby, and vote to support the lobby's interests, while escaping the wrath of the public. But with so much attention on the issue of smoking, they can't still look good and vote with the tobacco lobby.
Q: What sort of regulation would you like to see on the sale and marketing of cigarettes?
A: Appropriate regulation--regulation that at least duplicates what's going on in other countries. We should have the warning label on the front of the pack, as Canada requires. Ban advertising and raise taxes, as Canada has done. The difference between the Canadian government and ours? It's the power of the special interests and the money that goes into the hands of the politicians.
Another important regulation would raise the age for purchasing cigarettes to 21. It would require merchants to have a license to sell cigarettes, just like liquor. There are statistics which really make the case for this--of all smokers, 60% start by the age of 14 years old, and 90% by the age of 19. That means only one smoker in 10 starts after the age of 19. If we can keep cigarettes away from kids until they reach 21, we could go a long way toward eliminating the problem. So the purchase of cigarettes must be regulated as seriously as alcohol. This means banning vending machines as well. You can't buy a beer in a vending machine. But vending machines are how children are getting cigarettes.
Q: What sort of a tax would you like to see applied to cigarettes?
A: The direct medical costs related to smoking is $22 billion a year. If you divide that by the number of packs of cigarettes sold every year, the figure comes out to $2.17 of direct medical costs per pack. So, at the very least, the tax should pay for the cost of smoking.
But let me make a somewhat radical proposal. I believe that the future of tobacco control may lie in nationalizing the tobacco companies. This means that the government would pay an appropriate, or perhaps an inappropriate price for the tobacco companies and from that point forward, all the profits would go to Uncle Sam. Imagine how much easier the job of tobacco control would be if there was no more money spent on lobbyists. I am not a socialist. As a rule, I don't believe in nationalizing industries, but tobacco is an exception: It's the only product sold which, when used as intended, causes death.
Q: Where do the 54 million people who smoke fit into this debate? Don't we need to focus on them at some point?
A: Yes, but I will tell you candidly that we have limited dollars--and it costs a lot more to get someone to stop smoking than it does to educate children not to ever start smoking. It's vastly more costly to get addicts off cigarettes. I don't think we can ignore or neglect the issue of smoking cessation, however. And I think the tobacco industry's assertion that smokers have choice sounds good, but how much of a choice do smokers really have when cigarettes are as addicting as heroin?
I do believe that if under Clinton's health-care program, employers are going to pay for the health care of their employees, then smoking cessation programs should be included in the national health-care program.
Q: Do you believe people have a right to smoke and, if so, what rights do they have?
A: Smoker's have a right to smoke, but the right of nonsmokers to breathe clean air supersedes the right of smokers. So it is very appropriate to ban smoking in the workplace, in public places like restaurants and airports, in enclosed spaces where people have to breathe. But I don't believe in a cigarette prohibition. The tobacco industry would love to have tobacco-control advocates such as myself take the position that cigarettes should be banned, because then they could call us zealots or fanatics , and dismiss us. I take a moderate and what I feel is an appropriate position.
Q: What about Hollywood? While cigarettes have disappeared almost entirely from television, there's still a lot of smoking in the movies. Are you trying to do anything about that?
A: Yes, and I think we need to do something to encourage stars like Wynona Rider from chain-smoking throughout a movie like "Reality Bites." We should encourage her to argue with her producers and say, "Hey, I don't want my character to smoke; I may be a role model for young women, and the last thing I want them to do is smoke cigarettes." If Wynona Rider had the courage to do that, it could make a difference. Perhaps she's taken an unfair beating for smoking in that movie, but that may be the kind of pressure we have to put on stars to make them refuse to smoke in movies.
And here's something that's never been printed, as far as I know. I have it on very good authority that the firm U.S. Tobacco financed a movie called "Pure Country." In that movie, all the cowboy heroes chewed tobacco, and it was financed by the company most responsible for producing chewing tobacco.
Q: Some years ago, you talked about achieving a smoke-free America by the year 2000. It seemed like an outrageous idea just a few years ago, and now it's seeming to be something that might almost be achievable. When do you think you can put yourself out of business?
A: I don't think I will be out of business in my lifetime. With hundreds of millions of addicts around the world, there will always be plenty of work for tobacco-control advocates. I always point out that, a few years ago, we thought we'd never get smoking off airplanes, and today we and wonder if it was really true that there ever was smoking on airplanes. So one day we are going to look back and say, "You mean, people used to actually smoke?" That day is coming, that's a promise.*