Kessler's a Drag

Alexander Volokh
Wall Street Journal, August 8, 1995

During World War II, you could unmask a Nazi soldier masquerading as an American GI by asking him, "Who won the World Series?" Today, in the nicotine debate, one question is a similar giveaway. Ask someone, "Is smoking addictive, and do people know this?"

"No" to the first part means you're talking to a tobacco company president. "No" to the second part means you're talking to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler.

Whoever doesn't know that cigarettes are addictive and deadly has been living in a cave. People have known that cigarettes, tar, and nicotine are bad at least since the 1950s. When the cancer connection was first proposed, low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes quickly appeared on the market with no prodding from the government. Cigarette companies aggressively tried to gain market share by scaring smokers about their competitors' tar and nicotine levels -- even though the Federal Trade Commission banned such advertising in 1954. From 1957 to 1959, tar and nicotine contents dropped 40% because of consumer demand. The FTC eventually cracked down on violators in 1959, but then it reversed course, allowing nicotine advertising in 1966 and mandating it in 1970. Today, all cigarette ads indicate tar and nicotine contents.

According to Kip Viscusi, professor of economics at Duke University, people today actually overestimate the risks of smoking. The average American estimates the risk of dying from lung cancer because of smoking at 38%. The true risk is between 6 and 13%. The average American estimates the total risk of dying because of smoking at 54%. The true risk is between 18 and 36%. Prof. Viscusi calculates that if people had accurate perceptions of smoking risks, smoking actually would increase by about 7%.

Dr. Kessler tells us, "The public thinks of cigarettes as simply blended tobacco rolled in paper. But they are much more than that. Some of today's cigarettes may, in fact, qualify as high technology nicotine delivery systems that deliver nicotine in precisely calculated quantities." But smokers don't need tobacco companies to manipulate their nicotine intake -- they do it themselves all the time. They do it by choosing which brand to smoke (nicotine contents range from 0.05 to 2 mg), how often to light up, and how deeply and often to puff. Smokers may not know exactly what secret herbs and spices cigarette companies add to tobacco, but they're well aware of the risk.

The surprising thing about the modern antismoking movement isn't that it wants to regulate a personal choice. That's nothing new. What is new is how disingenuous the movement has become. In the early 1900s, during the first wave of anticigarette sentiment, people at least said that they opposed smoking on moral grounds. Today, the Kesslers of the world pretend to be scientists, acting as if their recommendations hinged on some new evidence. They don't, and it's dishonest to say otherwise. But while everyone sees through tobacco companies' dubious claims, Dr. Kessler's are working.

Underage smoking is a real concern, and there are probably steps that the government should take to reduce children's access to cigarettes. But what sort of society are the antismokers creating for our children? Says Sam Kazman, general counsel of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, "Personally, I don't want my children to smoke when they grow up. I also don't want them to ride motorcycles or fly hang-gliders. But most of all, I don't want them to grow up thinking these aren't their decisions to make."

Alexander Volokh is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a public policy think tank in Los Angeles.

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