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July 16, 1999

Tussling Over Tobacco Money, Forgetting the Victims


My lung cancer was diagnosed last November after I'd felt unusually tired for a few weeks and had been fighting what I thought was just a cold. No, I don't smoke; nor do many thousands of people who are found to have this disease each year. But I stand to benefit from the same kind of medical research that would help someone with a three-pack-a-day habit.

Because some people get diseases like mine from smoking, the tobacco companies were forced to settle with our state governments for a whopping $246 billion -- almost the same amount the American military spends each year. The money was supposed to pay the states back for all the cash they've spent over the years treating sick smokers. But state and Federal taxes on tobacco, already in place, have provided more than enough money to cover these costs all along. Was it the tobacco companies' fault that politicians chose to spend this money on roads and bridges?

A compassionate but na´ve person would expect the states to use their $246 billion windfall to try to prevent more people from suffering and dying from cancer, emphysema or other smoking-related illnesses. If this is blood money, why not try to stop the bleeding?

Ah, but the greedy deal makers in our state capitals have other plans for the money. No, I'm not talking about anti-smoking campaigns, although almost all the states are spending at least a token amount on those. I'm talking about construction projects. Paying bills. New nonmedical programs.

For example: Rhode Island might spend a chunk on reducing its car tax; Connecticut, its property tax. Michigan is looking to finance college scholarships and water projects and wants to renovate the state morgue. In North Dakota they want the money for state employee salaries ("payroll demands"), in Oklahoma it's teacher retirement funds and in Alabama it's a prison for juveniles.

Most of this spending would be fine if it came out of state tax revenue, but the states sued the tobacco companies claiming that they wanted to help sick smokers and, by accident of illness, me. This money should not be poured into general funds. It should help prevent and cure disease.

When the legal battles were going on to try to get the tobacco industry to cough up this money, I spoke out against the idea that the companies owed anything, since smokers make their own choices about whether to risk their health by lighting up. I couldn't stand the hypocrisy of politicians who blamed the industry while taking any and all taxes from the sale of tobacco, not to mention the generous political contributions from tobacco companies. Just who is more addicted, I asked, the smokers or the politicians?

I still don't believe it's right to blame the industry for what is essentially a life-style choice. I always thought the anti-tobacco lawsuits were about money; now I know they are. Every day I read about another state battling over how to spend its share, and every day I grow angrier because most proposals have nothing to do with preventing or curing lung cancer or any other smoking-related disease. After eight weeks in the hospital, the amputation of my left leg, the trials of continuing chemotherapy, to say nothing of the emotional toll the diagnosis has taken on family and friends, I want to see this tobacco money better spent.

Judy Jarvis is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show.

To the Editor:
Re "Tussling Over Tobacco Money, Forgetting the Victims" (Op-Ed, July 16):
Why do so many people consider drug addicts and alcoholics to be victims while smokers are considered to be a burden on the health care system?

Smokers on average die earlier than nonsmokers; dying earlier saves the health care system billions.

Smokers also pay taxes with each pack of cigarettes they buy. The combined health care savings and tax revenues make up for the smoking habit.

Though the government continues to demonize tobacco, nobody in Washington is clamoring to ban it because there is so much money to siphon from the tobacco industry.

As American smokers endure more and more unfair persecution, I ask, "Where's the A.C.L.U.?"

Tucson, Ariz., July 19, 1999

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