The assault on tobacco continues. The recent phenomenon of federal and state governments levying reparations on the tobacco industry for health care costs is unprecedented, and it presents much food for thought. It is likely that the companies, already diversified, will not suffer much, or at least a good deal less than they would if subject to endless class-action suits.
Other health-endangering corporations—Seagram’s, Anheuser-Busch, the makers of the Corvair and the Pintohave never been singled out in this way. In fact, they would more likely be candidates for bailout than prosecution. It is an easy bet that if the tobacco industry was as important to New York, Massachusetts, or Michigan as it is to the Carolinas, we would be seeing a rather different federal policy. South-hating, almost as old as American history, can always be called into play. A recent wire service story, datelined Tokyo, told how the evil tobacco growers of the Southeastern United States, facing declining domestic markets, are cruelly addicting unfortunate Japanese teenagers to cigarettes.
With all the talk of reparations these days, we ought to extend our thinking a little beyond the usual victim groups. The Indians (excuse me, Native Americans) owe us for the damage tobacco has done. The Europeans who first came to the New World were happily innocent of the Stinking Weed, but they soon caught on (and their governments soon recognized a great opportunity for monopolies and tax revenue). There were arguments all across Europe as to whether it was a good or a bad thing, but it was a major and ineradicable habit by the time the novelty died away, and tobacco quickly spread to the rest of the world. So the Native Americans, now flush with casino money, owe not only us poor white and black Americans, but the Europeans, the Chinese, and everyone else for having thrust this terrible addiction on us.
There are other curious features: the government suing for the recovery of healthcare costs, for instance. The tacit assumption seems to be that government is the main provider of healthcare—an idea I thought we defeated back in 1993. Is the government in fact grabbing for itself compensation that is potentially due to thousands of individual sufferers?
The tobacco saga also illustrates the sad ignorance of history that afflicts American bureaucrats and media. We ought to have a little more sympathy for tobacco. (I confess to being descended from a long line of tobacco farmers, one of the most skilled and intensive forms of agricultural endeavor.) Tobacco was the most important product of North America in the 18th century. It vastly aided the economic growth of America and was the mainstay of North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. Without tobacco, development would have been retarded, and the colonies would not have had the strength to fight a War of Independence.
Possibly tobacco did not do our ancestors much harm, and may even have offered them considerable comfort in a world with fewer comforts and more dangers than ours—as it did the fighting men in World War II. Our forebears constantly breathed air infused with the smells of coal and wood fires, tanning, soapmaking, manuring, animal slaughtering, weaving, dyeing, and the like. A good pipe or dip of snuff was a pleasant change for them.
Before this century, people enjoyed tobacco in pipes, cigars, chewing plugs, and snuff. It appears that cigarettes, a strange modern invention, do the most harm. The older forms of tobacco were produced by craftsmanly efforts. The cigarette is a typical industrial product, mass-produced for the lowest common denominator. It is the emblem of our century, with its excessive urbanization, centralized governments, indiscriminate global warfare, uniformitarian culture, and frantic tempo. Smoke ’em if you got