Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why cigarettes are here to stay

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 11:24 AM EDT, Tue April 30, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Cigarettes would never be accepted if they were just now being introduced today
  • The FDA has given up efforts to show grim disease photos on packs
  • Bloomberg wants merchants to hide cigarettes. U.S. has tense relationship with cigarettes
  • Greene: Painted into a corner, the U.S. makes timid moves

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story," "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams," and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Whether you're a three-pack-a-day smoker who doesn't like being lectured to about the health risks, or you're a person who doesn't touch cigarettes and wouldn't smoke one if you were offered a Ferrari in exchange, picture this:

Imagine, for a moment, that cigarettes had never been invented. And that in 2013 an eager entrepreneur went to the Food and Drug Administration seeking approval for a new product -- cigarettes -- that he wanted to sell to the American people.

Imagine that the Food and Drug Administration, taking its time and doing its homework, came up with all the currently available medical evidence about the dangers of smoking.

Whether you're a smoker or not, you know what the FDA's response would be to that hypothetical entrepreneur:

They'd laugh him out of the room.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

They'd ask him why he was wasting their time.

They might, if they were feisty enough, point out the deadly impact of what he was asking them to authorize, and say to him:

"There's a legal term for knowingly causing death to people. In asking us to approve your product, sir, are you not setting us up to become accessories to murder?"

But cigarettes are not a new product. They are perfectly legal in all 50 states, and they're going to stay that way. Which is why two cigarette-related events last week are so instructive.

The federal government gave up its highly publicized battle to make every package of cigarettes carry large, gruesome-looking illustrations.

FDA changes course on graphic warning labels for cigarettes

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The proposed illustrations -- they included images of a diseased lung, of a tracheotomy hole in a man's throat, of rotting teeth -- were rolled out with great fanfare in 2010. The government wanted the illustrations to cover the entire top half -- front and back -- of every pack of cigarettes sold in the United States.

Last week, faced with arguments from the tobacco industry that the mandatory images violated free speech rights -- the cigarette companies said the images were "intended to elicit loathing, disgust and repulsion" -- the government backed down. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote that the government will not fight the case in the Supreme Court. The FDA will instead reevaluate the proposed labels.

Last week's second event took place in New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked for a law that would force merchants to hide cigarettes on sale in their stores.

"Hide" in a literal sense. The legislation would mandate that any cigarettes sold in a store would have to be concealed in a drawer, or in a cabinet, or behind a curtain -- it would be unlawful for the packs of cigarettes to be visible to anyone visiting the store.

Bloomberg's point is that the more difficult it is to purchase cigarettes, the fewer packs will be sold, and the healthier citizens will become.

Bloomberg: Nanny-in-chief or health crusader?

Bloomberg: Stores should hide cigarettes
Bloomberg going after NRA

Bloomberg's proposal, and the case of the ghastly illustrations, both underline America's bizarrely bifurcated relationship with cigarettes:

The country -- smokers and nonsmokers alike -- realizes the dangers involved. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that around 443,000 people a year die because of cigarette use.

But the product is as legal as a loaf of bread or a jar of pickles.

So the cigarette manufacturers have a point when they say the government is overstepping by demanding nauseating images on their packages. Free speech does not only refer to our right to say anything we choose; it also refers to our protection from having the government force us to say things against our will. Even convicted killers, when speaking in court before sentencing, are not required to say they are guilty. The government has a right to create, publish and broadcast the strongest anti-smoking campaigns it can come up with, but the cigarette companies make a compelling case in saying that, as long as their product is legal, they should not be forced to print repellent images on their packages.

(And -- who knows? -- the federal government, in deciding not to fight the package illustrations battle in the Supreme Court, may be wary of what could happen there. What if the Supreme Court not only ruled against the proposed graphic illustrations -- but additionally, on similar grounds, opened up the question of whether the text-only warning messages on cigarette packs, the ones that have been there since the 1960s, also are an incursion on free speech?)

In New York, Bloomberg's heart may be in the right place, but merchants who want to sell cigarettes should be justifiably puzzled: If any product is not legal, then they should be barred from stocking it, but as long as it is, how can anyone presume to tell them where to display it -- or, more to the point, that they can't display it?

It all comes down to this:

While well-intentioned attempts to curb smoking may appear bold and decisive, they are in the end timid. The big and most effective step -- outlawing cigarettes on the grounds that they undeniably, in the long run, sicken and kill the people who smoke them, and those around them -- is not going to happen.

Politicians would be terrified to do it -- there are an estimated 45 million smokers in the United States, and no one is going to risk alienating them by completely cutting them off from cigarettes.

In an already shaky economy, the repercussions from shutting down the tobacco industry -- the jobs suddenly lost -- would be, to put it mildly, highly problematic from a political and real-world standpoint.

The memory of Prohibition would undoubtedly be on lawmakers' minds. The government once tried to take from people something they had been accustomed to, something that had been legal: alcohol. The outcome was anything but pretty.

If there really were the political will to end cigarette use, there are ways. Each state sets its own laws for the minimum age to purchase cigarettes -- in most states, it's 18. If states decided to raise the age to, say, 80, that would do it. But the chances are zero.

Like it or not, the country has painted itself into a corner. Cigarettes kill. They will continue to. If they were a new product, they'd never make it to market. Don't bet against them still being here a century from now.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT