Hook children or lose business. It’s that simple for the tobacco companies. They know it, and they act on it. Meanwhile, even though a vigorous opposition—galvanized by tobacco’s harvest of death—is fighting back, the churches are surprisingly quiet.

In October of 1990, however, antitobacco activists in Washington, D.C., connected for the first time with a circle of the city’s church leaders, including a representative from the National Association of Evangelicals. Meeting in the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill, church participants heard startling accounts of death, greed, and indifference from the coleaders of the Congressional Coalition on Tobacco and Health and two representatives of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health, a lobbying arm of the American Heart and Lung Associations and the American Cancer Society.

Rep. Bob Whittaker of Kansas, at the time the Republican coleader of the Congressional Coalition, left participants with an astonishing image of tobacco’s human toll. He said that of the 2.5 million people who die each year from the effects of tobacco, 390,000 are Americans. This latter figure alone, he said, equals the number who would die if three 747 jumbo jets, fully loaded with passengers, crashed every day for an entire year.

In February, the Centers for Disease Control revised their figures upwards to 434,000 preventable tobacco-related deaths each year. That is an increase of 11 percent—or more than two additional plane crashes each weekend.

Against killing and destruction, the Lord of the church strives for life abundant. God wants the best for every human being, and he wants us to challenge the world to this same end. Whittaker’s image of death surely invites the church to make the fight against tobacco part of its witness to the gospel. The more you realize about tobacco’s impact, the more compelling the case for church involvement becomes.

A Tobacco Pandemic

Whittaker might have added that tobacco causes more deaths each year in the United States than heroin, cocaine, alcohol, AIDS, fires, homicides, suicides, and auto accidents combined.

Studies show that in 30 years, the number of tobacco-related deaths, worldwide, will jump to 10 million annually. Of all the children now living on the planet, 200 million will eventually die as a result of tobacco use. Yet despite the overwhelming evidence that tobacco causes cancer, heart disease, and respiratory illness, the industry continues to deny that its product is dangerous and continues to market it aggressively.

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When a product causes premature death, the key to marketing success is new customers. But United States government statistics show that only one new smoker in five begins using tobacco after turning 21. That fact invites the cynical attention the tobacco industry is paying to the young, both here and abroad.

Fran DuMelle, who represents the American Lung Association on the Coalition for Smoking OR Health, showed participants at the October briefing a poster with the familiar “Smooth Character” from Camel cigarette ads. The dapper, confident-looking camel conveys an impression of sexual and material well-being, and appears often in Sports Illustrated, one-third of whose readers are under the age of 18. The ad tells you how to order the poster. The poster arrives with a coupon for obtaining free cigarettes. Even though the offer stipulates that participants must be of adult age, no one verifies how old you are when you write in.

Recent shipments of millions of packs of cigarettes to the Persian Gulf to hook vulnerable young men at a time when they are unusually susceptible to peer pressure is deplorable. But it only extends standard industry practices, such as sponsorship of rock concerts, sports events, and the like—events, that is, with special appeal to the young. These efforts further exemplify a strategy whose result is that new customers are hooked on an addictive product before they can give adult consent to the risks. The fact that the product is addictive helps keep the customers buying for a lifetime.

In America alone, some 6,000 children and teenagers must begin smoking each day just for tobacco companies to maintain current sales levels. The industry’s large stake in attracting the young is obvious.

It is true that in December the Tobacco Institute said it was starting a campaign to discourage smoking among people under 18. But it gave no substantive reasons for this. “Are they afraid,” one health advocate asked sarcastically, “that the children will burn their little fingers?” Moreover, the institute’s proposals for discouraging smoking were pale compared to what industry critics espouse. This moved columnist Ellen Goodman to dismiss them as “a savvy attempt at freezing the smoking status quo.”

Usage levels are actually falling off in the United States. Cigarette sales declined here 7 percent during the early 1980s. If the industry were really intent on a new phase of public virtue, it would not be working so hard to expand its markets overseas.

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American tobacco products sold outside the United States often bear no health warnings. They often contain higher levels of tar. They are often sold “by the stick” rather than “by the packet” to expedite easy purchase. They are often distributed for free, even to children. Young women dressed as cowboys, for example, are these days offerings samples of Marlboro cigarettes in the town squares of what used to be East Germany.

For all six major U.S. tobacco companies, foreign sales now exceed domestic sales. Much of the industry’s energy is focused on the susceptible populations of the Third World. Overseas efforts helped increase cigarette consumption by 33 percent in Africa and 24 percent in Latin America during the period when it was declining by 7 percent here.

Fran DuMelle put the effect of all this in perspective at the Capitol Hill briefing. Of the 10 million annual deaths that will occur as a result of tobacco use by the year 2020, 7 million will occur in the world’s poorer countries. If the tobacco industry’s marketing aggression knows any obstacles, human vulnerability is not one of them.

Government Complicity

No less astonishing than the death statistics and the corporate greed is the indifference—or better, complicity—of the United States government.

True, certain steps, admirable and important steps, have been taken. In the early 1960s, the government sponsored the Surgeon General’s Advisory Commission on Smoking and Health, and the report of that commission popularized the idea that smoking damages human health. The government has since mandated warning labels on cigarette packages and disallowed broadcast advertising. In 1988, another report from the Surgeon General was released, documenting the addictive nature of cigarette smoking. Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin, the other congressman who spoke at the October briefing, led out in the struggle to ban smoking from most domestic airline flights. The ban took effect in 1990.

Unfortunately, the branches of our federal government do not always coordinate their efforts. While some departments, regulatory agencies, and congressmen fight this health hazard, others seem captive to complex economic forces centered largely in tobacco-producing states. Thus, these laudable efforts hardly make up for other disastrous aspects of tobacco policy. The only way to reduce the number of premature deaths is to reduce the number of tobacco consumers. Yet the government continues to pay huge sums—$279.2 million in 1987—to support guaranteed prices for growers.

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Besides this, it subsidizes the marketing of tobacco by allowing manufacturers to deduct as a legitimate business expense the full cost of advertising their products. American businesses normally benefit from such a deduction, but tobacco products are unique for being lethal when used as intended. This makes industry promotions—which routinely associate tobacco with intelligence, beauty, and youthful vigor—not only false, but brutally false. When a government that acknowledges the link between tobacco use and premature death helps promote these products, that government is blameworthy, too.

More amazing still, the federal government has assisted the tobacco industry in opening markets in other nations, often Third World nations. Although the United States thinks of itself as the world leader in promoting international health, it is the world’s leading exporter of cigarettes.

But here there is reason for hope as well as outrage. Until November 1990, recent government efforts to open trade opportunities for the tobacco industry had focused substantially on Thailand. That country not only banned tobacco imports but also tobacco advertising. American government officials wanted both bans lifted, and fought for this under the provisions of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

This was so even though experience in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan suggests that with the introduction of U.S.-style promotion and advertising, cigarette consumption increases dramatically, particularly among women and children.

According to embassy officials in Washington, the Thai government wants to protect the health of its citizens by reducing tobacco consumption. In the end, however, the Thais had to agree to lift the import ban. But pressure from the antitobacco lobby in Washington helped convince the United States government to back down on the matter of advertising.

Now foreign companies can sell tobacco products in Thailand but not promote them, except by the display of empty packs at retail counters. In the words of one antitobacco lobbyist, this constitutes an “extraordinary victory.” But for the manufacturers, other markets beckon, especially now the markets in Eastern Europe. Tobacco promotions abroad will continue, and they will also continue, no doubt, to focus on the young, as they do here.

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With this in mind, Matthew Myers of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health remarked at the Rayburn Building briefing that we are “in the truest way the ugly American, preying on the children of other nations.” Even though it is a beginning and not an ending, the Thailand case supports the hope that this can change.

Private Vice Or Social Evil

At the briefing, the speakers’ message for the churches was this: Fight tobacco; raise your voices, too. Here and there this is already happening, as in the work of the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility and in the witness of such inner-city congregations as the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. But for the churches in general, and certainly for religious lobbyists in Washington, tobacco’s harvest of death still ranks low as a subject for public witness.

Why? It may partly be that the grim facts still elude attention. Former President Jimmy Carter recently remarked, “It’s sobering for me to know that more Colombians died last year [1989] from smoking American cigarettes than did Americans from using Colombian cocaine.” This is not only sobering, it is surprising—people are still not fully aware of the extent of the damage tobacco causes.

Another reason for tobacco’s low rank as a subject of public witness is the commonplace idea that smoking is a merely private vice. On this view, as philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill might have said, you may be justified in “remonstrating with” smokers, but since they are “sovereign” over their own bodies, you would not be justified in “interfering” with their freedom to smoke. Or to paraphrase philosopher-musician Leslie Gore, “It’s my body, and I can die if I want to.”

The feeling that smokers only harm themselves has typically stunted enthusiasm for governmental action on the tobacco question. But because the nicotine in tobacco is addictive, the choice to smoke does not in the long run express the ideal of personal choice so revered in our society. It undermines it. This in itself lends plausibility to at least some efforts of tobacco control, including, surely, efforts to protect children from the industry’s cynical inducements.

But smokers, in fact, cause harm to others. Women who smoke while pregnant harm the unborn children they are carrying. Likewise, smoking in men has been linked to a higher incidence of congenital weaknesses in their offspring. All smokers harm those who must breathe the air they contaminate. The evidence establishes all this beyond reasonable doubt. Indeed, according to the January 1991 issue of Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association, passive smoking kills 53,000 Americans each year and is the third leading, preventable cause of death in the United States. Only alcohol and active smoking rank higher.

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Another hindrance to the Christian witness on tobacco and public policy is the lingering sense that the gospel addresses individuals rather than societies. But more and more, Christians are recognizing that the quality of personal life depends substantially on the quality of public life. And more and more, they are recognizing that the biblical call to win converts is also a call to heal societies.

For each individual and for the whole world, the divine goal is abundant life, exuberant, joyful peace. God not only promises such a blessing; God invites us to be, like Abraham, mediators of this blessing in all the earth.

One way for the churches to embrace this hope and task is to join the struggle against the tobacco pushers. Users of tobacco harm themselves—in the end not so much because they choose to do so as because they are addicted. Those who smoke harm others, too. The industry harms others on a massive scale, and with massive cynicism.

The U.S. government should, without pinching off the freedoms our Constitution guarantees, take ever stronger action to stop the harm. And to this end, the churches should raise their voices high. This is not a question of merely private vice. It is a question of social evil and institutional wickedness. In large part, it is a question of the deliberate victimization of children for profit. The Christ who took children in his arms would disapprove, and so should we.

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