Please allow me to preface this commentary by stating that I am not a smoker. Personally, I find cigarette smoke to be rather nauseating. However, if I turn on my television and see one more pretentious environmental studies student at Self Righteous State University opining about how I should live my life, I may just force myself to start smoking.
You’ve undoubtedly seen the commercials -- body bags stacked by the hundreds outside of a tobacco company building; the plastic baby left in a carriage with an index card conveying the atrocities of secondhand smoke; and even those cunning lads attempting to send arsenic and cyanide through the mail via a cigar box filled with cigarettes. These public service announcements have been brought to us courtesy of the TheTruth.com, a group of benevolent activists dedicated to educating youngsters about the harmful effects of smoking.
Many moralists and anti-smoking crusaders have praised the ads for being thought-provoking and clever, which admittedly they are. But the key issue is not the quality of the ads, but how they are funded, the underlying messages they are sending, and if they are really necessary.
In order to thoroughly understand the concept of TheTruth.com, one must first understand its origin. TheTruth.com is the main benefactor of the American Legacy Foundation, and both are ultimately the ornery offspring of the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA). The MSA is the result of the four-year lawsuit that began in 1994 filed by the state Attorneys General against “big tobacco.” As a result of this lawsuit, the seven largest tobacco companies were scornfully summoned to deliver $206 billion to various state governments over the next 25 years which would be used toward tobacco control and to educate young people about the dangers of smoking. In order to do this more efficiently, The Truth.com was contrived to infect youngsters with the knowledge to “make their own decisions” about smoking.
These ads have malignantly spread to my home state of Indiana in the form of Whitelies.tv, which has been funded by the Indiana Tobacco Cessation & Prevention organization coincidentally also via the MSA. The spots feature youngsters sardonically describing how they hope to die from lung cancer, heart disease, or anything else “big tobacco” may force on them. Again, while the sentiment of preventing children from the dangers of cancer is admirable, its origin is anything but. Since the ITCP Web site explicitly lists one of its primary goals as “changing the cultural perception and social acceptability of tobacco use in Indiana,” civil libertarians can not help but question this type of social persuasion espoused by the state and federal governments.
Many concerned parents and supporters of these ads argue that their children need to be educated about the dangers of smoking, and rightfully so. Smoking is very dangerous. Contrary to what anyone in the tobacco industry may profess, it does cause cancer, heart disease, and a whole gamut of other health problems. What parents should be concerned with, however, is who is doing the educating. Why does the government need to fund an array of objectionable agencies to tell their children something they can do themselves at home for free?
Some also argue that the government is not funding these ads, but the tobacco companies are via the MSA. However, even if that is the case, it will not be for long. According to Mark Schmidt, Director of Programs at the National Taxpayers Union, the rush to fund new programs with tobacco money could actually increase the burden on taxpayers forced to underwrite programs that survive long after the settlement dollars are spent.
“The rationale is clear,” Schmidt said. “Have you ever heard of a government program being abolished? It's also a collective action problem. As soon as a program receives government funding, yet another special interest group arises to demand continued funding of their pet program.”
What’s more, even if this money was to be solely funded by “big tobacco,” are there not better ways to spend it? Every time one of these superfluous public service debaucheries invades the television, one has to wonder if there could be a more appropriate way to spend this money. How about supplying public schools with proper supplies so already underpaid teachers don’t have to shell out their own money just for their students to have proper utensils? Just a thought.
Another argument often made is that tobacco needs to be a paramount issue due to the economic strain it puts on other members of society. According to the “whitelies” website, tobacco related medical expenditures result in over $1.6 billion a year in Indiana, which comes out to about $275 for every person in the state. This is undoubtedly true -- those who do not smoke are indeed being punished by the plight and ill-health of those that do. That, however, just exploits the inevitable drawbacks of living in a society in which an entire citizenry is punished for the hazardous behavior of the minority.
The problem with these ads is that not only are they redundant -- we get it, smoking kills -- but they are ultimately helping to destroy the notion of individual responsibility that is inherent to the necessary functions of a free society. By saying, “hey kids, you’re being victimized because you can’t think for yourself so let big brother tell you what’s good for you and protect you from those capitalist monsters,” you create a society of victims who will endlessly be forced to rely on the government’s ideals, not to mention its subsidies, instead of their own ingenuity. Most economists will tell you that can never end well.
What’s more, one must really consider whether or not they are effective. How often have you heard a sixteen year old say the following? “Gee, I’d like to smoke a cigarette but that commercial with the kid in the rat suit really hit home with me. I think I’ll stick to clean living from now on. Thanks Truth.com.”
Thanks indeed for telling Americans what we already know -- smoking is bad. Despite all of the well-intentioned preaching and finger-pointing, TheTruth.com and its patronizing brethren are nothing more than an inane waste of resources, time, and an insult to the collective intelligence of society and the potential victims they purport to save.
You’ve just been infected with THE TRUTH.
Matt L. Ottinger is the marketing communications intern at the Hudson Institute.
I don't agree with his views on smoking, but man I hate those friggin commercials!