Archive for Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Our history with tobacco

Statewide ban topic of new bill

February 6, 2008

Our relationship with tobacco in this country beggars understanding.

We've long known that it's important that children don't smoke. And yet, we've somehow gotten the idea that if adults do it, it's OK. After all, we tell ourselves, they're only harming themselves. Mature adults, given all the facts, ought to be able to decide for themselves whether to smoke. That's the American way, surely.

There are a few problems with these suppositions.

For one, they're not just harming themselves. The vast preponderance of research conducted over the last 20 years conclusively demonstrates proven statistical links between second-hand smoke and cancer and heart and lung disease. (That's not to say the second-hand smoke causes cancer - we still don't know what causes cancer - just that if one is exposed to second-hand the likelihood of getting cancer, emphysema or heart disease goes up, and not just by a small factor.)

Given that nicotine is more addictive than heroin, one can also question just how free smokers are to give up the weed. Many people do quit, surely. But many of us have also known people who, warned to quit smoking because of heart or other problems, nevertheless refused to do so, and thus participated in their own demise, to the sorrow of their friends and family.

The first Europeans who came to the New World found natives smoking pipes filled with tobacco, and made sure to take some back along with the corn and other produce that seemed to be of interest.

Everything was hunky-dory for ages, until, in the years after World War II, scientific studies began to suggest that tobacco use was associated with increased risks of cancer and heart disease.

Even in the late 1950s the science was all but inescapable, but, because of the power of what had by now come to be known as the Tobacco Lobby, generations of Americans got cigarette packages with the surgeon general's warning: Smoking has been shown to be associated with elevated risks of heart and lung disease, or words to that effect. (Today's warning labels are much more specific: "Smoking causes cancer," etc.)

Because it's been around so long, tobacco has sort of "grown in" to the American body politic. It's taken root, surely. Until just a few years ago, government price supports were paid to farmers in some states to bolster its profitability.

Today that seems very nearly insane. Surely today, if a person came up to any of us on a street corner and offered to sell us a product that, if used as intended, would materially shorten our lives, have pronounced effects on the quality of our lives and even have deleterious effects on the health of our families, whose only participation is to breathe the same air, we'd call the police.

If it were possible to erase tobacco's history and someone were to discover the weed now, growing in some hereto-inaccessible jungle, it's hard to imagine how our food and drug regulations would permit its importation or its sale.

All of which is a roundabout introduction to the following piece written by Sen. David Wysong, who has introduced a bill in the Kansas Legislature that would require a vote on a smoking bans in every county in Kansas.

Actually, we'd prefer a straightforward, statewide ban, but that seems unlikely to occur. In that case, Sen. Wysong's bill may be the next best step. Eighty percent of Kansans do not smoke, and a recent, independent survey showed that 71 percent of Kansans favor a statewide ban. The Legislature should get off the dime and pass Senate Bill 493.

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