Did you ever notice how it works? Sell your cousin a joint for some harmless fun and you both end up in jail. But manufacture cigarettes that kill tens of thousands of people and not only do you earn billions of dollars, you avoid all risk of hard time. Lawsuits may cost you something but your personal freedom is never at stake. And presumably if you had a conscience you wouldn’t have gone into the business to begin with.

Indeed, conscience is apparently a rather low bar for entry into the trade. There’s no shortage of workers to keep the tobacco business going, from farmers to ad men to lawyers. All believe that they are merely filling a demand generated by people’s personal choice. No harm in that, right?

Cigarette companies generously assist tobacco addicts by coming up with more new products to circumvent laws designed to impede self-destruction. And this is no paltry market—there are still 46 million smokers, or 20 percent of America’s adult population. Of course it doesn’t look as though that many are puffing anymore because they’ve been driven underground. They’re furtive. Smoking is out of vogue just now and few addicts want to be spotted doing it. That’s not only because they’re perceived to be stupidly ruining their own health, but also because they’re perceived as stupidly wasting large amounts of their own money.

Addiction doesn’t respect social values, and neither do tobacco companies. They’ll cheerfully produce whatever the market will accept. Just now that huckstering suicidal behavior has turned to chewing and sucking tobacco, yet another rather untidy habit aimed at producing shorter lives and bigger profits. The marketing is intense, the availability of product is growing, and there’s no smoke to annoy non-participants. There is of course, spit, the public display of which blessedly still seems confined to professional baseball players.

Another looming tobacco battlefield is cigars. While they’re not exactly a hot ticket at the moment, they’re also not covered under many serious cigarette laws, especially tax rates. Nor are they well defined. Just suppose that all at once they were to begin looking very much like cigarettes. Which laws would apply? Well, you get the drift. It shapes up to be another lawyer-deploying battle coming along.

Not that the bar doesn’t still have plenty to do on existing cases. There remain lots of individual lawsuits from aggrieved (sick) smokers and their estates. Class action may have dwindled lately, but there are oodles of big bucks on the table individually and big precedents at stake. Many technical wrinkles in state and federal laws remain to be worked out in the companies’ favor as well. Unfortunately these lawyers never have to worry about their clients being jailed. This isn’t China.

State governments remain particularly conflicted over smoking. They’re torn between wanting to alleviate the social cost and simultaneously protecting tax revenues. The bigger the tax, the less people smoke. Thus even with a higher rate, total revenue may go down. What a choice.

Still another unpleasantness is that many states fudge on the percentage of their juicy class action awards that they invest back into cessation programs. They cheat by plowing almost all of that money into the general budget.

But Massachusetts has come up with a startling related discovery. By paying the costs of cessation for poor people they have dramatically lowered the poverty smoking rate. That’s saving the state a bundle on Medicaid. This news may be the next big smoking breakthrough, but of course senators from tobacco states hope to keep such a program from ever going national. The best system, though, would be a law to put the poisoners in jail, just like drug pushers.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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