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Thursday 23 January 2003

Health Groups Lobby Against Tobacco Ban

The North Dakota legislature recently voted down a proposal to impose total tobacco prohibition in the state. Under the defeated bill’s provisions, sales of tobacco would have been punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine; use of tobacco by 30 days in jail and $1,000.

Most anti-tobacco legislation is aimed at making tobacco more expensive through punitive taxation, or more difficult by restricting where it can be sold, or more inconvenient by restricting where it can be used. This bill, though, would have put you at risk of jail if you lit up your pipe in your house in the middle of your 5,000 acre ranch (of which there are more than a few in North Dakota). “Medical costs” and “lost productivity” were, of course, the justification:

Before the bill went to a vote on the floor, [Grand Forks Republican Rep. Mike] Grosz told his fellow representatives that tobacco costs the state close to 1,000 lives every year and $351 million in medical and productivity costs.

According to the CDC (warning: PDF), in 1995, about 3,900 people died in North Dakota.

My guess is that Rep. Grosz’s “close to 1,000” deaths actually means “930 deaths”, taken by multiplying the number of annual deaths by 24%, the CDC’s figure for what portion of the North Dakota population smokes. If you exclude accidents, HIV, homicide, etc., 24% of the annual deaths is 864, which is still closer to 1000 than to zero.

The fact that more than 864 — or 930 — people die a year in North Dakota seems to indicate that not smoking is not a recipe for immortality, though. My guess — and remember, I’m not a physician or even a North Dakota state representative — my guess is that those people would still die, even under the benevolent hand of Rep. Grosz. But never mind.

The interesting thing are the circumstances of the bill’s failure:

[Rep. Wes] Belter [R-Leonard, chairman of the Finance and Taxation Committee] told the House that committee members were frustrated last week with the testimony from anti-tobacco groups that testified against the tobacco ban, including the North Dakota Medical Association, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, North Dakota Public Health Association and North Dakota Nurses Association.

What?! That’s like the WCTU endorsing Johnnie Walker. These groups are always in favor of raising taxes on tobacco and of banning smoking in public places. But here we have the American Lung Association lobbying against a bill to ban the use of tobacco? Why?

There’s no evidence banning tobacco would prevent and reduce tobacco use because no such approach has been implemented, the groups argued.

Ahhhh. Now we see. These groups are skeptical that banning tobacco would reduce its use. Some of these same groups are vocally opposed to lifting the ban on things like marijuana, on the basis that such action would increase use of those drugs. Apparently there’s no reason to believe that the same thing would work in reverse, though, and nobody, especially anti-tobacco groups, would want the government to take action based on incomplete or faulty information. But there’s more:

The ban also could take away certain funding for these groups for tobacco control programs.

Ah. Well. So the position of the American Lung Association et al. is roughly this: we should not ban tobacco because that would reduce funding for tobacco control programs. It seems to me, though, that banning the sale and use of tobacco is a tobacco-control program. It’s just not a tobacco-control program that involves various “public health” groups receiving funding from the government.

It would be worth remembering this the next time you see any of these groups arguing for higher taxes on tobacco in order to “discourage” tobacco use and produce positive “health” results.

Posted by tino at 13:05 23.01.03
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