Crimes on Tobacco Road

In Marine Corps boot camp, we could strive for only one pleasure. If only the day had gone well, if someone had not screwed up, if the drill instructor's wife had not nagged him that morning, if nobody had a spot of rust on his M-14 or a blemish on the polished brass of his belt-buckle ....

Fresh-scrubbed from the shower, smelling of Dial soap, standing at-ease in our shower shoes in rows along the platoon street, our spirits rose as we anticipated the words.

"Arrrah, the SM-OK-ING lamp is lit."

Man, did we ever smoke. We smoked our hearts out. Pavlov needed no dogs at this scene. This was the reward for 12 brutal hours of wartime physical training and mental pressure. Let me say again, there was no other pleasure offered, not even conversation. So we took it. Rows of Zippos clicked open and flickered. We sucked big, fine, satisfying lungs-full of Marlboro Red. We felt that indescribable rush of smoke as it turned the bend in our windpipes. Our skin flushed with gratification.

Most of us from that training platoon went on to Vietnam. We learned more about smoking. In foxholes on the perimeter at night, we learned to burrow under poncho halves beneath the sandbags to work our Zippos so we wouldn't make targets of ourselves. When the cold rain fell and the supply ship didn't make it in and there was nothing but Spam and Kool-Aid for what seemed like weeks, and when the letters arrived from back home to tell us we'd lost our girlfriends to "free love"--oh, Susan Fletcher, whatever became of you?--when all that happened, we learned that one pleasure would never be denied us. What does a man say after he comes out of shock after stepping on a mine in a lost cause? "Gimme a cigarette, Sarge."

Meanwhile, back in the laboratory--in the little shop of corporate horrors--we now know there were other men wholly devoted to our pleasure.

Sometimes in my dreams I can see their detached, cold-blooded eyes as they rush to please their bosses. People in lab coats, in the cause of their ideology--capitalism--deliberately jacking up the addictive substance in our tobacco. People who carried on even when their own evidence showed they were wrapping bullets in paper and killing us. Then lying about it, and spending millions egging us on with a smile. "I'd walk a mile for a Camel." "A silly millimeter longer."

I have struggled with cigarette smoking ever since.

During the intervals when I've quit, even for years at a time, my mind has still wandered to the rush that came with the first long drag. At times, when the old addiction takes over, I suck down my nicotine like any other junkie behind the bushes, full of self-loathing at my own weak stupidity. Or, as now, as I try to quit yet again, raging at my family and friends in withdrawal.

For this, I'll accept my share of the responsibility, but I won't accept it all.

Friends, I think we're attacking the problem in the wrong way.

When Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft backs down from the federal government's billion-dollar damage suit against the tobacco industry, I am unmoved. Who cares? Suit or settlement--what will that accomplish anyway?

We know Ashcroft's leanings on this. He's against some drug peddlers and for others. So?

What catches my eye is paragraph buried deep in the story noting that some tobacco companies "have expressed support for the federal regulation of tobacco, which analysts have said may be a basis for settling."

Excuse me, but who the hell are they to dictate the terms of settlement?

And excuse me, but how far will we get by having the federal government "regulate" our doom? Don't talk to me about more warning labels and our billboards to counter their billboards.

Newspapers play this development on the business page and conclude their stories with the daily stock prices of tobacco companies. If I owned the newspaper, I'd print this information with the crime news.

If it was my choice, the relevant number would not be the stock price, but the potential prison sentence for endangering humanity. Let the attorney general bargain with his pals to get them 30 years instead of life.

What I'm saying is that the civil courts are not the place to settle this kind of social issue. That lets them off too easy. If these suits brought justice, how come the tobacco companies are still making money?

These suits just divert our political energies. And they lead us into a moral dilemma. My stomach ties itself in a knot when I think about how we're paying for schools and parks from tobacco settlements and tobacco taxes. As far as I'm concerned, governments that profit from the profits of this long crime spree are co-conspirators. Restitution from these corporations is just splitting the lucre.

So what do we do?

As with other wanton acts that lead to death and injury, we make it a crime to do things like this: We establish the perfectly sensible, everyday law that faceless corporations are not the responsible entities for endangering the public, but the men and women who run them are. When someone devises a product that kills us and then soups it up to make us want more, that person shouldn't worry about the ka-ching of expensive litigation insurance. He should worry about the ka-ching of a barred door closing on his miserable life.

But what about people who want to smoke? Who need to? They should have that freedom, yes. But what I'm saying is that corporations and government and investment counselors should not be in the business of peddling deadly drugs and then profit-sharing with the government.

Maybe we cannot turn back the clock and snag those people who got us here. But we surely can get those who are doing it now: those who keep the tobacco industry healthy by making the rest of the world unhealthy.

That fellow in a necktie in a corporate suite gets plenty of reward for his shrewd decisions. He should pay the price, personally, if he willfully and intentionally does us wrong.

Angry? You bet.

This one is personal. And it's not just me who makes it so.

My mother sits at home today in Anacortes, Wash., and gasps for breath. She has for years. I watch her mouth sucking for life the way a fish does when the lake dries up. Once a vibrant woman, she reaches for oxygen by the clock now. She opens what is left of her lungs with sprays of harsh chemicals that have robbed her of her eyesight. She sobs because my sister must read my columns to her.

This one's for you, Mom.

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