The tobacco industry is, by far, the most maligned in the United States. The animosity to the industry, however, is quite understandable. Tobacco companies produce a very harmful and addictive product. The industry is fraught with false advertising and reputedly very shady tactics.
So, tobacco is the only industry characterized by harmful products and often questionable business practices, right? Sure, unless you want to include spirits distillers, automobile manufacturers, oil companies, drug companies, fast food companies and many restaurants, aircraft maufacturers, nuclear utilities, processed food companies, consumer products companies, mobile phone manufactuers and most of the rest of the Fortune 500!
Despite the product risks, most industries are accepted because the products or services are consumed by so many. We drive cars, but lots of people die in car accidents. We drink wine and vodka despite the risk of liver damage and cardiovascular disease. We live on Prozac and Xanax, which are sometimes fatal, because they help keep us sane. We love our cell phones despite the brain damage. Get the picture?
Economically, each of these industries producing harmful products has huge benefits. They employ millions of people, they pay lots of taxes. Most of their products are sought-after world wide because alternatives are relatively few in many cases.
The economics are not really controversial, however. In the case of tobacco. it really gets down to the very emotional health issue. Anyone with half a brain understands the numerous health problems caused by chronic tobacco use. About 20% of the United States adult population choose to smoke. So, what I wonder is: why does lung cancer trigger more contempt than liver damage or brain damage or death by airplane crash?
The tobacco industry has repeatedly shot itself in the foot over the years. Critics have unearthed irrefutable evidence of some extremely nefarious business practices. They market to teenagers, suppress studies that implicate them, employ an army of lobbyists to garner favorable political treatment, ignore health to enhance the likelihood of long term use of their product and are constantly being litigated against. Them, and just about every other industry!
Doesn't tobacco kill? Yes, it most certainly does. But, so do nuclear reactors, oil rigs, car crashes and Big Macs. Hmm, I'm still missing the difference. How is tobacco different?
Oh yes, it kills OTHERS! It has spill-over effects on non-smokers via second hand smoke. Cars kill other people than the driver. So does burning fossil fuels. So do alcoholics. What's the difference, again?
The fact that tobacco kills, is actually a double-edged sword. Yes, the deaths are unfortunate and unnecessary. But, shortening life spans has some major societal and economic benefits. Longer life spans are placing major weight on Social Security and other entitlement programs which disproportionately benefit the elderly. So, the health risks borne by tobacco smokers actually transfers wealth to non-tobacco smokers. When looked at this way, non-smokers certainly should understand how they benefit from smokers. Thus, the big picture is not as clear cut as they may have believed.
The tobacco industry is actually operating at some major disadvantages via the rest of corporate America. For example, what industry is forced to run ads which tell people NOT to use its product? Only one other as far I can tell: utilities.
An additonal high-profile source of negative publicity is the endless lawsuits. Unfortunately, the tobacco industry is a virtual full-employment act for attorneys. The industry is continually sued by smokers for the adverse health risks they knowingly chose to ignore. In addition, some people are quite comfortable arguing that the cigarettes lit themselves and jumped into their mouths. The same folks who sue because their McDonalds coffee was too hot! What's the difference?
The mind-set that life should be without risks has been encouraged by politicians for years. We want no recessions, so we interevene in the economy. We can't stand health risks, so we pass unnecessary legislation to "protect" us against the consequences of our own well-informed choices. You can't have that Double-Cheeseburger... it's BAD for you.
If you're a non-smoker, just remember the following: every person that lights up reduces YOUR tax burden and is less likely to draw scarce financial retirement resources. Chew on it, and see what you think.