Archive for Thursday, December 6, 2001

Smoking tiff seems like satire

December 6, 2001


— Readers of a certain age will recall Buck Rogers, the space-age invention of writer Philip Nowlan, in prose, on the radio, in comic strips and movies. With the advent of the genuine space age in the 1950s and '60s, it became common to describe routine achievements as something only previously imagined in Buck Rogers.

I was reminded of the Buck Rogers syndrome the other day when the Montgomery County (Md.) Council voted to allow the county to fine homeowners and landlords who let tobacco smoke drift into neighbors' residences. The fines were not trivial as much as $750 and the county was prepared to get serious about the problem: Agents would investigate and prosecute complaints. I was born and raised in Montgomery County, with memories of neighbors burning piles of leaves in the street, so this struck me as another example of how times change.

Yet, as sometimes happens in these instances, the story caught on. County Executive Douglas Duncan, who is ambitious for higher office, had announced that he would happily sign the anti-pollution bill that contained this second-hand smoke provision. But once the calls began from reporters around the world, comedians made jokes, and George F. Will (a county resident) likened the council to the Taliban on ABC's "This Week," Mr. Duncan had second thoughts. Citing the possibility that county employees might be wasting taxpayers' time in the middle of neighborhood conflicts what better way to punish the jerk across the street than to denounce him as a smoker? he vetoed the bill.

Everyone had a good laugh in the end, and life has returned to normal. Something very similar occurred last year when Alfred Muller, the physician-mayor of a tiny hamlet in the county called Friendship Heights, banned smoking on streets, sidewalks and in public spaces, such as parks. This order was similarly greeted with worldwide derision, but the mayor had no intention of backing down.

So while Montgomery County won't be recruiting and hiring smoking police armed with the power to knock on your door at the cocktail hour anytime soon, I am not so sure something like that won't happen in time.

I should point out, for the record, that I am neither a resident of Montgomery County nor a consumer of cigarettes, and so am personally unaffected by whatever the council does. Moreover, I share the surgeon general's conviction that smoking is hazardous to health.

But surely, in the land of the free, there must be some concern about government's relentless pursuit of tobacco. During the Clinton administration, the Justice Department and the Food and Drug Administration did all within their considerable power to cripple an industry that is not only legal in America, and employs tens of thousands of citizens, but is subsidized by the very same federal government. To add cynicism to coercion, the states joined together to extort billions from the industry in lawsuits. But after the tort lawyers divided their hundreds of millions in fees, the states earmarked their shares not for anti-smoking programs designed to protect "kids" (as they had pledged to do) but on standard expenditures such as road construction.

It is tempting, of course, to laugh at Montgomery County. After all, as Fred Singer of the Science and Environmental Policy Project points out, "The county should also ban the burning of wood in fireplaces (since) wood smoke, which spews high concentrations of particulates and aromatic hydrocarbons (and worse) into the environment, certainly poses a greater health risk than secondhand cigarette smoke escaping from houses." Is outdoor barbecuing next?

But what seems amusing and implausible today merely stimulates the appetite of the tort bar and its allies. Not long ago, The Onion, the satirical newspaper, jokingly reported that Hershey Foods Corp. had been ordered by a Pennsylvania jury "to pay $135 billion in restitution fees to 900,000 obese Americans who for years consumed the company's fattening snack foods. 'Let this verdict send a clear message to Big Chocolate,' said Pennsylvania Atty. Gen. Andrew Garsten, addressing reporters following the historic ruling. 'If you knowingly sell products that cause obesity, you will pay."'

As with Buck Rogers, we may live to see the day when lawyers and their friends in government file routine lawsuits only previously imagined in The Onion.

Philip Terzian is the associate editor of the Providence Journal.

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