Why Al Gore Is Our Secret Weapon in the War on Smoking

206 billion dollars. That's billion with a "b", folks.

 In what is supposed to be the largest civil settlement ever, eight states and the four biggest tobacco companies have, as of the writing of this column, reached a settlement of the lawsuits some of the states had filed to recover the costs of treating sick smokers. The money is supposed to be used for treating smoking-related illnesses. Some of it will also go to finance programs and research to discourage smoking, including research to find out why teenagers start smoking. The tobacco companies have also agreed to restrictions on how they advertise cigarettes. No more T-shirts. No more billboards. No more advertising at sports events.

 Of course, some health organizations say that the settlement doesn't go far enough, that it won't really decrease smoking. Well, they're half right. It won't do anything to decrease smoking, and you know what? That's just the way the states want it.

 Let's get real, folks. Neither the states nor the Feds really want people to stop smoking, not when they rake in so much tax money from smokers. For fiscal 1996, the feds grossed a total tax revenue of over $5 billion (that's with a "b" again) from excise taxes. In the same period, taxes on cigarettes yielded the states $7 billion. Ain't no substance in the world more addictive than tax money.

 The whole point of these state lawsuits is to suck more money out of the tobacco companies, not to stop people from smoking. So the anti-smoking measures make a big to-do about things that anyone with the sense God gave a gray squirrel knows don't make a bit of difference.

 For instance, let's take this nonsense about advertising. Remember the flap over Joe Camel? Folks said he encouraged teenagers to smoke. I don't know about you, but I find it hard to imagine kids staring at Camel ads on billboards, going "Wow, man, look at that cartoon camel! He's shooting pool! Ha Ha Ha! I better start smoking right away!" I suspect that teens reacted to Joe Camel the way they react to most things adult: by rolling their eyes and sighing in that world-weary way that says "I am in the presence of unbearable lameness."

 My friends, I can save you some of those research dollars. Teenagers don't smoke because some Madison Avenue art director drew a camel dressed like one of the Blues Brothers. The reason teenagers take up smoking is because adults don't want them to. The most burning desire, the holy mission, of your average teen is to make adults crazy. How else do you explain Elvis? The Rolling Stones? Marilyn Manson? How do you explain teenagers driving around in circles, blasting music at sufficient volume to cause sterility in lab animals? They do it because it makes you nuts.

 C'mon, admit it. When you were a teenager, you did stuff that would make your Mama cry if she found out about it. So did I. That's the definition of "cool" for a teenager: anything that would make your Mama cry. And nothing makes your Mama cry like smoking.

 And while we're at it, you might as well quit doing all of these anti-smoking ads showing how smoking gives you lung cancer. Any smoker already knows that. My GRANDMOTHER, God rest her soul, called them "cancer sticks." But as far as deterring teenagers, heck, they think they're bulletproof. You think they're going to be afraid of a little lung cancer?

 You want ads that will cause a decline in teen smoking? Here's what you do: you get Al Gore, who has to be the stiffest human being in the world who is not actually British. You put Al in front of the camera, have him light up a Marlboro, then look into the camera and say in that endearingly wooden way that is the Gore trademark: "Cigarettes are really cool, man!" After that, you won't be able to GIVE cigarettes away to teenagers.

 Smoking is stupid. It wrecks your lungs, gives you bad breath, and now there are even some studies that say it makes men impotent. If THAT doesn't stop men from smoking, nothing will. But you're not going to legislate stupidity out of existence. And trying to cure stupidity through advertising is like trying to cure promiscuity through prostitution. People are going to exercise their natural inclination to do moronic and self-destructive things without reference to what the guvmint or Madison Avenue tells them to do. I know, because I myself used to smoke.

 Doggone it, now I've made my Mama cry.

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1998 Jerry D. Rhoades, Jr.

Email: dustyrhoades@booksnbytes.com