Big Tobacco gives tickets to oblivion


QUESTION: What is the most preventable cause of death and disease in America?

Clue: It involves a lot of coughing and hacking and wheezing, and it smells really bad. It takes more lives than auto accidents, AIDS, alcohol, heroin, cocaine, suicide, and homicide combined.

You buy the thing in packs of 20, set them on fire, and breathe deeply. What fun, huh?

Even a tobacco company executive would get the point, though he or she would try to convince you - and especially your adolescent children - that there's nothing to worry about.

Big Tobacco is in constant recruitment mode, hoping to hook another generation of kids as new smokers. And Big Tobacco has been very successful. Seldom is the decision to smoke made by adults.

The Foundation for a Smokefree America says that 60 percent of smokers start by the age of 14, and 90 percent of smokers were firmly addicted before reaching the age of 19. In other words, only one in 10 smokers became addicted after the age of 19.

For many of them, their habit is a ticket to oblivion. The World Health Organization estimates that of the world's 1.2 billion smokers, 500 million will die of smoking and the diseases it causes.

But Big Tobacco doesn't want to hear it. BT, which made Ohio its battleground state in 2006 and lost its fight against a statewide ban on smoking in public places, has shifted its attention this year to the state of Oregon. On Nov. 6 voters there will decide the fate of Measure 50, which would boost the state tax on a pack of cigarettes by 84.5 cents a pack. It would generate an estimated $152 million in its first two years and $233 million in its second two years, money that would fund health care for Oregon's 117,000 uninsured children and pay for tobacco prevention and education programs.

That sounds like a pretty good plan to me, but then, I don't work for Philip Morris or R.J. Reynolds. Neither, thank goodness, does Patrick Reynolds. Mr. Reynolds is the grandson of the giant tobacco company's founder. He could have embraced a comfortable and lucrative corporate life but chose a different path after watching his family's products kill his father and oldest brother. Now he's one of America's best known anti-smoking advocates. I have to assume he's no longer welcome at family reunions.

I got to know Patrick Reynolds during the smoking ban campaign here in Ohio last year. He wrote a Saturday Essay for The Blade, he appeared on The Editors television program, and he traveled Ohio as a truth-teller in the face of the tobacco industry's lavishly funded campaign of misinformation. Fortunately, Ohioans knew whom to believe.

I caught up with him by phone in Los Angeles. As you might expect, he is all for Measure 50.

"Increasing cigarette taxes is a triple-win for the states," he says. "It reduces smoking, saving lives. It raises revenues and reduces health-care costs. And it's a political win because it's so popular with the public."

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids cites studies showing that every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes reduces smoking among youth by 7 percent.

"Kids are very price-sensitive," Mr. Reynolds says.

No wonder the company that bears Mr. Reynolds' name is already in full battle mode in Oregon. It's only mid-October, Election Day is still three weeks away, and Big Tobacco has poured more than $6.6 million into its effort to defeat Measure 50. That means that with 22 days to go until Nov. 6, the ballot measure campaign is already the most expensive in the state's history.

Last fall the tobacco companies spent more than $65 million in California to stop a $2.60-a-pack tax increase and roughly $6 million more against a proposed 80-cent increase in Missouri. Both measures failed by the same margin, about 3 percentage points. So Big Tobacco's blitz in Oregon cannot be dismissed as a quixotic quest doomed to fail. Then again, we're talking about Oregon, which has marched to its own political drum in the past.

I've never smoked, but I remember when my parents did. It seems to me that when I was a child, they paid about a quarter a pack and maybe $2 for a carton of 10 packs. Today some name brands cost as much as $5 for one pack alone, and a carton of 10 packs can cost as much as $40 to $50. Yet people still buy them, so strong is the addiction.

So despite the studies I'm not sure that raising Oregon's cigarette tax by 85 cents a pack will seriously cut into the number of adult smokers there. But if it does not, the revenue stream for Oregon's uninsured kids and tobacco prevention programs will be even greater than projected. That should mean that thousands of young Oregonians will never start this terrible habit in the first place. Good for them and good for Oregon.

Will Oregon be ridiculously out of line with the rest of the nation by boosting its excise tax on cigarettes from $1.18 a pack to $2.02 1/2? Hardly. Neighboring Washington already levies the same amount. New Jersey collects $2.57 a pack in excise tax, Rhode Island $2.46, and Arizona and Maine get $2 even. So does Michigan. Ohio, incidentally, is at $1.25.

So I wish the state of Oregon well on Nov. 6. I feel no sympathy at all for a business so desperate to keep the money river flowing that it resorts to misinformation and deceit to hook young people vulnerable to peer pressure. After all, this is an industry whose product, when used as directed, kills.