Here is an image for you: The gray pall of a middle-aged woman on her deathbed, her hairless head the synecdoche of a body racked by tumors. She is all colorless lips, sunken cheeks, and frail hands hugging too-prominent clavicles, empty eyes casting a thousand-yard stare, perhaps at the dread visage of the Reaper himself.
Here’s another: a waist-up shot of dead man, mouth agape and naked on the stainless-steel dissection slab of some morgue, complete with the freshly stapled “Y-incision” that is the tell-tale of a recent autopsy running the length of his sternum. How about a tight shot of a dime-sized hole in a man’s throat? Or an extreme close-up of fingers prying a mouth apart to reveal an incomplete row of brown teeth set in gangrenous gums? Or an illustration of a mother blowing smoke full-on into the face of the infant clutched at her bosom?
These are not the elements of a macabre collage put together by some creepy Goth kid for his junior-college art exhibit. They are the product of federal bureaucrats and of federal policy, and beginning next year they will by law adorn every pack of cigarettes sold in this country, alongside blunt textual warnings such as “Smoking Can Kill You.”
The garish goriness of the labels evinces a kind of B-horror-movie aesthetic, and implies the same kind of contempt for the intelligence of the audience. It is clearly the issue of a government that thinks not only that you are too stupid to make your own decisions, but that you are too stupid even to understand your ignorance — a kind of pre-Socratic imbecility that means the only way you can be reached is by playing on your most primordial fears. Indeed, as Danny McGoldrick of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a group that has strongly lobbied for the warnings, put it in a recent NPR appearance, the labels are meant to make “an emotional, graphic,” and “fear-arousing” appeal to smokers to quit. Call it Smoxploitation.
The labels, which must occupy at least 50 percent of the real estate on a given cigarette pack, are required by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, which garnered 79 votes in the Senate and nearly 300 in the House, and gave the Food and Drug Administration broad new authority to regulate the production and sale of tobacco. It is part of a broad White House–led effort to effect a decrease in the number of smokers, one that includes $225 million in funding from the now-infamous Recovery Act and provisions in the (also now-infamous) Affordable Care Act that will require Medicaid, as well as many private insurance plans, to cover “smoking cessation” treatment.
It would be one thing to ponder the use of taxpayer dollars and the force of law to change smokers’ habits, if this were happening within the context of a serious conversation about whether individual decisions to smoke impose substantial enough effects on non-smokers — in terms of air quality, socialized health-care costs for the treatment of tobacco-related illnesses, and the like — to justify restrictions. Even the most libertarian-leaning conservative understands that there are negative externalities, though he may set a high threshold for when they demand government intervention. But this is often not the conversation we’re having. During the aforementioned NPR segment, which included McGoldrick and FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg along with yours truly, most of the debate between panelists and callers centered not on whether the spooking and shaming of smokers was within the proper purview of the government, but whether it would work.
It’s a fine question. At one point during the segment, an earnest Louisiana woman wrote in to suggest that “if these pictures stop even one person from taking up the habit or scare somebody into stopping, they’re worth it.” This, of course, is buffoonery. You don’t rouse the United States Congress, not to mention the tobacco lobby, to exertion and appropriate that many zeroes just to touch one heart. So will the campaign put a dent in cigarette use? Even the FDA’s own estimates suggest the answer is: not really. Against the background of a smoking population of about 46 million, they estimate the labels will, if you’ll excuse the expression, create or save some 213,000 non-smokers. That’s less than half a percentage point of improvement — a bad number even for a stimulus project.
But neither should the conversation even get this far. It is a testament to the total success of progressive politics in substituting “pragmatism” for “principle” in our political vocabulary that government busybodies and their enablers ask only how they can modify a behavior without ever wondering whether it is any of their business to do so. As with the supporters of things like seatbelt laws, sodium restrictions in fast food, and a thousand other well-intentioned assaults on volition, when you ask the do-gooders in favor of laws retarding tobacco consumption what philosophical or constitutional principles justify such restrictions, they will as often as not blink, shrug, and tell you: “Because it’s bad for you.”
This won’t do. Conservatives rightly champion folk virtues as a powerful source of societal order. But it is quite a different thing for the activist class to assume that their latest prejudices rightly command the status of law. As William F. Buckley Jr. was fond of pointing out, not everything disreputable should be illegal, and each act of creeping nanny-statism brings us closer to that eventuality. Slippery-slope arguments are in the rhetorical doghouse these days (not least, I’d argue, because they’re inconvenient for the sort of soft-and-cuddly totalitarians who, e.g., banned home-packed lunches at one Chicago grade school in favor of the more “nutritious” cafeteria food). But we’ve seen what liberty-squeezing incrementalism does here in New York City. When Lord Mayor Mike Bloomberg pushed to outlaw smoking in restaurants and bars in 2002, there were shouts; when the city council extended the ban to 1,700 parks, beaches, and other public areas this February, there were murmurs. When Hizzoner Weiner bans lighting up altogether in 2015, will it be seen as anything but an inevitability?
To a man, my liberal interlocutors on this topic have stopped me to ask whether I’m a smoker myself — identity politics to the last. I tell them this: I will still take a cigarette with friends on the odd Saturday night, but no longer consider myself “a smoker.” I cut back drastically due to the familiar concerns about health and hygiene, but I did not quit outright — due to the familiar concerns about having a little fun in this world before I leave it. I have made, and moderated, my mistakes. If you want my advice on whether you should repeat them, I’ll tell you that if I were you, I wouldn’t. But thankfully for both of us, I’m not you. And neither is the FDA.