Until 1993, the best argument presented in favor of increased government regulation of smoking was that tobacco-related illnesses were costing taxpayers hundreds of millions annually. Researchers found, however, that smokers' lives tend to be shortened through diseases that kill quickly, actually reducing the greater costs associated with lingering illnesses. One researcher proposed sardonically that tobacco use be subsidized if the goal is to reduce health-care costs.
In 1993, though, the Environmental Protection Agency adopted the melodramatic stand that secondhand smoke is a kind of negligent homicide, killing as many as 3,000 Americans annually. This argument, too, was quickly discredited by legitimate researchers, as well as the courts, because of inexcusable, purposeful flaws in the EPA's methodology. There is, in fact, no evidence of any significant increase in illness from the occasional inhalation of other people's smoke.
Though the media did, to their credit, cover the debunking of the secondhand-smoke ploy, the public has simply never caught on. I suspect this is due, in large part, to the fact that many of us wish there were a legitimate reason to ban unpleasant tobacco fumes, raw garlic breath, cheap perfume and unwashed body odor. Personally, I'd probably include rap music and Dell commercials.
Unpleasantness, however, isn't a sufficient justification for dismantling the principles of individual and property rights that America was founded on. And the case simply has not been made that the federal regulation of tobacco is necessary or advisable.
Smoking is already banned or severely restricted in most work and public places. Restaurants that don't have non-smoking sections are rarer than those that ban it outright. People who don't want to work or be around smoke have all the options they need to avoid even minuscule health risks.
Efforts to legally control and deter tobacco use continue, however, with dire consequences. Not only have there been murders of smokers by anti-tobacco zealots, the ban on ads for less-harmful cigarettes is preventing the development of safer products that could save many smokers' lives. Worse, high tobacco taxes to discourage smoking have proved, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a boon to large-scale organized crime now entrenched in the business of cigarette smuggling.
We should have learned from Prohibition how foolish it is to hand huge chunks of our economy to black marketers who will not hesitate to use the money and distribution channels for other, more serious crimes.
It seems richly ironic that links have been discovered between tobacco smugglers and Islamic terrorists. The authoritarian Taliban-style regimes they support provide a perfect model, after all, for those who would take our moral and health choices away from us.
As Edmund Burke said, ''The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away for expedience.'' What's next, I wonder.
Patrick Cox is a columnist for The Villages Daily Sun and The Sumter Sun in Florida.