We'd Never Be Able To Restrict Smoking If We Learned About Its Dangers Today
Credit: Gage Skidmore
July 16, 2016

It's being reported that Donald Trump has picked Indiana governor Mike Pence as his running mate. BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski hasunearthed some op-eds Pence wrote fifteen years ago, the most jaw-dropping of which is the one in which he says cigarette smoking is not lethal:

Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn't kill. In fact, 2 out of every three smokers does not die from a smoking related illness and 9 out of ten smokers do not contract lung cancer. This is not to say that smoking is good for you.... news flash: smoking is not good for you. If you are reading this article through the blue haze of cigarette smoke you should quit. The relevant question is, what is more harmful to the nation, second hand smoke or back handed big government disguised in do-gooder healthcare rhetoric.

... Those of you who find the tobacco deal acceptable should be warned as you sit, reading this magazine, sipping a cup of hot coffee with a hamburger on your mind for lunch. A government big enough to go after smokers is big enough to go after you.

Smoking, in other words, is only as harmful as red meat or coffee. Silly big-government liberal!

Big Tobacco resisted smoking restrictions for decades, but ultimately lost the fight. It would be nice to think that was because smoking opponents had the facts on their side -- but as we know now, that's not enough. Look at what's happening with climate change and gun violence.

Opponents of smoking won because America learned about the dangers of smoking starting in the 1960s -- before Fox News, before the spread of right-wing talk radio, before the full-scale Kochification of our electoral system, before the Powell Memo. Smoking foes won because they had a head start, and because a report from the surgeon general of the United States was considered credible at the time across much of the political spectrum. (The heartland hadn't been trained to hate and mistrust government the way it has in the past few decades.)

If we were only now trying to deal with the negative impact of smoking, the big tobacco companies wouldn't just fight back, they'd use right-wing propaganda outlets to turn smoking into part of the culture war. They'd find a way to make smoking seem like a thing Real Americans do, to the horror of liberals in the big cities and academia. They'd tell us that those "elitists" want to restrict smoking in order to be "politically correct."

If we were fighting this battle now, smoking would be mandatory for hosts on Fox. There'd be story after story on Fox about non-smokers dying of cancer and heart disease, and about smokers living to advanced ages. Tobacco companies would provide lavish funding for pseudoscience meant to demonstrate smoking's health benefits.

Congressional Republicans would vote to withhold federal aid to any institution that banned smoking. Republican states would make it illegal for localities to institute smoking restrictions. Ultimately, all Republicans would denounce smoking science as a conspiracy. There'd be a pro-smoking section in every Republican Party platform.

Mike Pence was on the wrong side of history -- but only barely. The good guys won that fight. They're struggling to win similar fights now.

(Crossposted at No More Mr. Nice Blog)

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