Opinion 10/19/01

Banning tobacco is feasible and preferable to the continued slow march of death

By Matthew Flitton

When I think of my great-grandfather, I think of his pipe. It always lay in the ashtray next to his armchair, waiting to be used. The last time I saw him, I was 9 years old. Since they didn't allow children in the hospice, he came to the mirrored window to look at us. With the reflection of the parking lot in front of him, he looked almost like a ghost. He raised his hand and waved at us. The oxygen tube gave his smile an eerie awkwardness. After a few minutes, his strength was spent. The man who had spent his life picking cotton and building skyscrapers needed help to get back to his bed. As he stepped back from the window, he faded away, leaving only the parking lot. Two weeks later, the throat cancer that had so weakened him, took his life.

Tobacco is a dangerous substance. In 1990 the Centers for Disease Control estimated that every year 400,000 deaths in the United States are attributable to smoking. If those deaths were immediate, we would be up in arms. But because the process is slower, we let it happen.

Tobacco makers have been concentrating the nicotine (the addictive part) in their product for years. Leaked memos from the industry show that. When my mom and I were traveling in France together, she told me that she had to smoke a couple of French cigarettes to get the same "buzz" she gets from an American one.

Tobacco companies have deliberately rendered a known carcinogen more addictive. They should be held responsible in the wrongful death of every man, woman and child who has died of a tobacco-related illness in the last 50 years. To make such a lethal product more addictive is akin to yelling "jump" to a person on a ledge. They may not have put him on the ledge, but they are contributing to his death.

We need to outlaw tobacco products. There are those who will say that this will make things worse. Because tobacco has been legal, a prohibition would never hold. It will cause all sorts of problems. I disagree. At one time, both opium and cocaine were legal and widely used. While some illegal drug use of these products exists, it is nowhere near what it was when these substances were legal. One possible way to do this is to raise the minimum age for smoking every year until all those eligible have become victims to their habits.

While the use of heroin is dangerous to the user, the use of tobacco endangers those who are in the area as well. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 3,000 American deaths annually are attributable to second-hand smoke. At least the smoker chose to use it; the guy next to him didn't invite these toxic particles into his lungs. It's an annoyance and a danger to all those who have the unfortunate experience of being downwind of the smoker.

I watched my great-grandfather fall victim to smoking. My grandfather has emphysema. I have other family members fighting to quit using tobacco before they join the condemned. Let us have to courage to stand up and outlaw a dangerous substance and stop the predation on the health of our society.



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