Recently the Tobacco Institute, a lobbying outfit pleading the case for the tobacco industry, has been placing ads in numerous publications complaining about the harshness with which the government is fighting cigarette smoking. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has been a vigilant soldier in the government’s fight. But it is very probable that he has gone way beyond the call of duty in what he is willing to say and do about many Americans’ choice to smoke cigarettes.
Dr. Koop is a good case in point as to why, despite the very attractive rhetoric of President Ronald Reagan, that kind of conservative administration is far from a true friend of individual freedom. President Reagan’s employment of Dr. Koop is clear evidence that the actual policies endorsed by the Reagan administration toward people who choose to live their lives differently from Dr. Koop are quite dangerous to the very ideals Ronald Reagan claims to have been championing.
Consider that Dr. Koop is the person who said he “wants a smoke-free America by 1990.” This sounds like an out-and-out threat to the liberty of a great many people who might not choose to quit smoking in the next year and a half It is clearly an utterance with dictatorial overtones.
But perhaps Dr. Koop allowed himself some hyperbole. He may simply have meant that this is what he wishes would happen by 1990—that people would have quit smoking cigarettes.
No such luck. Dr. Koop does not only sound like a dictator, he seems to be thinking like one as well. Some time ago Dr. Koop commented on the Tobacco Institute’s ads that lament all the harshness against smokers. He took the opportunity to respond to the industry’s claim that the plan to ban cigarette ads is an unconstitutional attempt at censorship. He said that on the contrary, it was indeed the tobacco industry that engaged in censorship. As evidence he noted that many papers that carry cigarette advertisements refuse to run reports on the hazards of smoking.
Note Dr. Koop’s claim. The tobacco industry’s refusal to run ads in papers that carry reports it does not like now counts as censorship. This is akin to what I have heard defenders of the Soviet Union’s government press say about the Western press. They claim that since in the West publishers can influence the editorial content of their papers, they are just as much involved in censorship as is the Soviet government.
That, as well as Dr. Koop’s response, is sheer, unadulterated sophistry. Censorship means the banning of a publication or display of human creations for others to freely choose to accept or reject.
If and when members of the tobacco industry withhold ads from papers that treat them unkindly—and the Tobacco Institute denies that this is a widespread practice, or that it even has any impact—they are simply refusing to trade in ways they believe will not be to their advantage. That is no different from my choosing not to eat at a certain restaurant or refusing to purchase a particular coat—perhaps for odd reasons (e.g., I am a vegetarian, I object to the use of animal furs). Such a boycott is the highest example of exercising our right to freedom of choice, and in a free society no one with an ounce of understanding of the nature of individual freedom would dare suggest that it constitutes censorship. Are we to regard Cesar Chavez a censor just because he proposes to boycott grapes? What about those Jews who, after 1945, refused to buy German cars? Or, perhaps even more pertinently, what about people who refuse to purchase blasphemous literature or refuse to go to see The Last Temptation of Christ? Actually, some people did, indeed, claim that the refusal to run or to view that movie amounted to censorship. But that is just as much nonsense as Dr. Koop’s remark.
In a free country there is freedom of the press and freedom of choice as to what press one reads or which press one hires for purposes of running one’s commercials. The paper can reject the ads and the advertiser can refuse to place his ads in it—it is all a matter of free trade. Because all of us have this freedom in such a society, there is a greater likelihood of all the news and all the various commentary getting fully aired somewhere. No advertiser nor any of the publications offering room to run ads is owed cooperation from the others.
Ronald Reagan said his regrets included the deficit, but that the rest of his administration was not bad, “not at all bad.” I beg to differ. With Dr. Koop he might as well have hired Ralph Nader or Jeremy Rifkin. None of these individuals has a clear enough understanding of the nature of individual liberty to deserve to be in a government sworn to protect it for all of us, smokers or nonsmokers.