The drive to improve the condition of others is a laudable impulse, but like so many other good things, it can be perverted faster than you can say, "Let me tell you how to live your life." All it takes to pervert it is the conviction that if people won't accept an obvious fact, something provably for their benefit, it's perfectly all right to shove it down their throats.
This is not a new thought, but it came to mind again when I read a New York Times op-ed piece, "Stubbing Out Cigarettes for Good," by law professor Richard A. Daynard. Professor Daynard points out that the number of smokers in this country has been reduced by about half since the 1960s, and he rightly credits the anti-smoking campaign of the late Dr. C. Everett Koop and a host of governmental actions for the reduction. But, he notes, smoking still kills more than 400,000 citizens a year and costs billions. He would like to see the number of smokers reduced from the current approximately 20 per cent to "well below 10 per cent." He has a couple of ideas about how to do this.
For one thing, he says the FDA could use its already existing authority to control the amount of nicotine in cigarettes and force the reduction of it to below addictive levels. Prohibiting the manufacture and sale of cigarettes containing addictive levels of nicotine would, the professor says, cause smokers to quit because they would no longer receive the desired kick. The experts tell us that smoking, for most participants, is more addictive than heroin or cocaine use, so there might be some merit in reducing nicotine levels. But I suspect some enterprising folks would soon form a lucrative business of back-door sales of nicotine booster packs.
For another thing, Professor Daynard wants a new law passed. This law would make it illegal for anyone born in or after 2000 to be sold cigarettes. Beautiful in its simplicity. Relatively easy for merchants to enforce, and it catches people when they're mostly too young to have started yet.
I absolutely agree that the public health problems and human costs resulting from smoking are horrendous, and I would love to see them become a thing of the past. I was a heavy, and I do mean really heavy, smoker for many years. I lit a cigarette first thing upon awakening in the morning and stubbed one out as my last action before turning out the light at night. And between those two beginning and ending cigarettes, I smoked from one to four packs more. To add variety, I sometimes smoked a pipe and often cigars. Among the many stupid things I've done in my life, picking up that addiction has to rank among the very stupidest. I finally broke the habit 27 years ago, and it was the most difficult thing I've ever done.
I hope I've recovered from most of the damage I did to my body, and I hope the many people into whose faces I carelessly and thoughtlessly blew tobacco smoke have forgiven or forgotten. I still worry about the possibility of lung cancer, and I've little doubt that some of the heart and circulatory problems that have crept in over the years owe at least some of their genesis to smoking. So, while I try not to preach to smokers, I would like to see their numbers decrease, for their own sake and for the costs some of which all of us must absorb.
But I think Professor Daynard's ideas are impractical and probably unworkable. Human nature makes us really desire forbidden fruit. And if we desire it enough, we will without fail find ways to get it. We learned that lesson well with Prohibition and the evils it spawned, and we're learning it again, right now, with the War on Drugs.
I think we're on the right path with current programs to curb smoking. They are slow, and many people will needlessly die while they work, but they have been proven to work. Prohibition has been proven to fail.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."