For­get mar­i­juana, what about cig­a­rettes?

The Covington News - - OPINION - RICHARD CO­HEN COLUM­NIST Richard Co­hen is a writer with the Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group and can be reached at co­henr@wash­

On Jan. 1, Colorado be­gan per­mit­ting the le­gal sale of mar­i­juana. Even be­fore that, the na­tion’s news me­dia had swung into ac­tion, ar­gu­ing just about ev­ery­thing -- mar­i­juana is dan­ger­ous or not dan­ger­ous, a gate­way drug or just a lot of smoke. Noth­ing I saw men­tioned why I, for one, will not smoke mar­i­juana. I’m afraid it would lead me back to cig­a­rettes.

Once I was ad­dicted to cig­a­rettes. (I sup­pose I still am.) I tried to quit nu­mer­ous times -- hyp­no­tism, acupunc­ture, hyp­no­tism again, willpower and shame and mor­tal shame -- but for the long­est time, noth­ing worked. I felt en­slaved -- suck­ing this poi­son into my body, soil­ing my lungs -- and en­raged at an in­dus­try that en­cour­aged me as a youth to smoke and, de­spite all the health find­ings, con­tin­ued to give me that en­cour­ag­ing wink: Smoke. Go ahead. Such sweet plea­sure!

Now the lat­est sur­geon gen­eral’s re­port shows that cig­a­rette smok­ing is even worse for us than we once thought. To all the usual dis­eases -- lung can­cer and heart disease -- can be added di­a­betes, col­orec­tal and liver can­cers and, irony of ironies, erec­tile dys­func­tion. The Marl­boro Man needs some help.

Boris D. Lush­niak, the act­ing sur­geon gen­eral, tacked on some more hor­rors: vi­sion loss, tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, rheuma­toid arthri­tis, im­paired im­mune func­tion and cleft palates in chil­dren of preg­nant women who smoke. Did I men­tion blad­der can­cer? How about cer­vi­cal can­cer? They, too, can be caused by smok­ing. Can you imag­ine any­thing more eco­nom­i­cal: al­most any disease you can name in a sin­gle pack­age.

The man­agers and di­rec­tors of to­bacco com­pa­nies must won­der at their good for­tune. The na­tion is en­gaged in a great de­bate about mar­i­juana -- is it dan­ger­ous, ad­dic­tive? -- while to­bacco is not only le­gal, but widely avail­able and not dis­cussed. Smok­ing, the sur­geon gen­eral says, is re­spon­si­ble for 480,000 pre­ma­ture deaths a year. That’s a bit more than the pop­u­la­tion of Kansas City, Mo. -- dead, dead and very dead ev­ery sin­gle year.

About 18 per­cent of Amer­i­cans smoke, down from 42 per­cent in 1965. But the de­cline has lev­eled off and with it has come an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of just how un­healthy smok­ing is. To­bacco is about the only prod­uct you can think of that, when used as di­rected, can kill you.

To my knowl­edge, Karl Marx never con­sid­ered to­bacco com­pa­nies in his crit­i­cism of cap­i­tal­ism. Yet al­most 150 years af­ter he pub­lished “Das Kap­i­tal,” th­ese com­pa­nies are sell­ing a car­cino­genic de­liv­ery sys­tem to what are, af­ter all, ni­co­tine junkies. How’s that for ex­ploita­tion, Karl baby? What other in­dus­try can claim so many lives and so much mis­ery? Be­gin­ning with its early ef­forts to sup­press med­i­cal find­ings, what other in­dus­try has such a splen­did his­tory of ly­ing to the pub­lic?

Yet the peo­ple who run th­ese com­pa­nies are not shunned, de­nied mem­ber­ship in the coun­try club and ap­pro­pri­ately re­viled. In­stead, they are wel­comed and re­spected and, of course, well-com­pen­sated. If you read the web­sites of the var­i­ous to­bacco com­pa­nies, you would think that they are in the busi­ness of fight­ing smok­ing and that new smok­ers some­how ma­te­ri­al­ize out of thin air. The word “re­spon­si­bil­ity” is a leit­mo­tif. This is an ou­tra­geous re­straint of trade; th­ese com­pa­nies leave lit­tle hypocrisy for any­one else.

I started smok­ing as a kid, 13 or 14 years old. Af­ter some years, I tried pipes and cigars as a cig­a­rette sub­sti­tute. No good. Pipes were im­prac­ti­cal when I was in the Army -- I couldn’t light them up or put them out fast enough to suit the av­er­age sergeant -- and cigars were no im­prove­ment since I tended to in­hale.

The truth is I loved to smoke. But now I can hardly bear to watch Bo­gie light up in some film-noir clas­sic with­out see­ing it as fore­shad­ow­ing his death from esophageal can­cer at the age of 57. And when I see kids on the street smok­ing, flip­ping off health con­cerns with the ar­ro­gance of youth, I want to slap them silly or, at the least, de­lay their walk with a lec­ture.

But mostly I want them and ev­ery­one else to ask how we can have a na­tional de­bate on mar­i­juana and ig­nore the an­nual moun­tain of ca­dav­ers from smok­ing cig­a­rettes. It, for sure, is a gate­way drug -- to an early grave.

“I felt en­slaved -- suck­ing this poi­son into my body, soil­ing my lungs — and en­raged at an in­dus­try that en­cour­aged me as a ...” youth to smoke.

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