On Jan. 1, Colorado began permitting the legal sale of marijuana. Even before that, the nation’s news media had swung into action, arguing just about everything — marijuana is dangerous or not dangerous, a gateway drug or just a lot of smoke. Nothing I saw mentioned why I, for one, will not smoke marijuana. I’m afraid it would lead me back to cigarettes.
Once I was addicted to cigarettes. (I suppose I still am.) I tried to quit numerous times — hypnotism, acupuncture, hypnotism again, willpower and shame and mortal shame — but for the longest time, nothing worked. I felt enslaved — sucking this poison into my body, soiling my lungs — and enraged at an industry that encouraged me as a youth to smoke and, despite all the health findings, continued to give me that encouraging wink: Smoke. Go ahead. Such sweet pleasure!
Now the latest surgeon general’s report shows that cigarette smoking is even worse for us than we once thought. To all the usual diseases — lung cancer and heart disease — can be added diabetes, colorectal and liver cancers and, irony of ironies, erectile dysfunction. The Marlboro Man needs some help.
Boris D. Lushniak, the acting surgeon general, tacked on some more horrors: vision loss, tuberculosis, rheumatoid arthritis, impaired immune function and cleft palates in children of pregnant women who smoke. Did I mention bladder cancer? How about cervical cancer? They, too, can be caused by smoking. Can you imagine anything more economical: almost any disease you can name in a single package.
The managers and directors of tobacco companies must wonder at their good fortune. The nation is engaged in a great debate about marijuana — is it dangerous, addictive? — while tobacco is not only legal but widely available and not discussed. Smoking, the surgeon general says, is responsible for 480,000 premature deaths a year. That’s a bit more than the population of Kansas City, Mo. — dead, dead and very dead every single year.
About 18 percent of Americans smoke, down from 42 percent in 1965. But the decline has leveled off, and with it has come an appreciation of just how unhealthy smoking is. Tobacco is about the only product you can think of that, when used as directed, can kill you.
To my knowledge, Karl Marx never considered tobacco companies in his criticism of capitalism. Yet almost 150 years after he published “Das Kapital,” these companies are selling a carcinogenic delivery system to what are, after all, nicotine junkies. How’s that for exploitation, Karl baby? What other industry can claim so many lives and so much misery? Beginning with its early efforts to suppress medical findings, what other industry has such a splendid history of lying to the public?
Yet the people who run these companies are not shunned, denied membership in the country club and appropriately reviled. Instead, they are welcomed and respected and, of course, well compensated. If you read the websites of the various tobacco companies, you would think that they are in the business of fighting smoking and that new smokers somehow materialize out of thin air. The word “responsibility” is a leitmotif. This is an outrageous restraint of trade; these companies leave little hypocrisy for anyone else.
I started smoking as a kid, 13 or 14 years old. After some years, I tried pipes and cigars as a cigarette substitute. No good. Pipes were impractical when I was in the Army — I couldn’t light them up or put them out fast enough to suit the average sergeant — and cigars were no improvement since I tended to inhale.
The truth is I loved to smoke. But now I can hardly bear to watch Bogie light up in some film-noir classic without seeing it as foreshadowing his death from esophageal cancer at the age of 57. And when I see kids on the street smoking, flipping off health concerns with the arrogance of youth, I want to slap them silly or, at the least, delay their walk with a lecture on what the surgeon general has found. But mostly I want them and everyone else to ask how we can have a national debate on marijuana and ignore the annual mountain of cadavers from smoking cigarettes. It, for sure, is a gateway drug — to an early grave.
Richard Cohen is a nationally syndicated columnist.