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Carlson Margaret Carlson was named in 1994 the first woman columnist in TIME's history. She writes primarily about policy and politics and is a regular panelist on CNN's Capital Gang.

Washington Diary: On Capitol Hill, They'll Drink To That

By Margaret Carlson

TIME magazine

(TIME, May 4) -- It takes an agile mind to defend drunk driving and kids' smoking. Take the modest proposal to set the drunk-driving threshold at .08 blood-alcohol content nationwide--stricter than the .10 standard in 34 states. The liquor lobby long played on the fear that .08 would mean social drinkers who've had a few after work would all fail the Breathalizer. But research shows you can drink yourself silly before reaching .08: a 170-lb. man can guzzle four martinis inside an hour on an empty stomach before he gets there. He may not be sloppy drunk, but who wants to run into this guy on the road? A quarter of the 17,000 drunk-driving deaths in 1996 happened at .08 or less; impairment starts as low as .02. The drinking lobby admits that at .08, even though you're not sober, you're sober enough to choose not to drive. An industry member at a state hearing argued that a couple of drinks "might improve driving ability." The Republican-controlled House Rules Committee, legislating under the influence of liquor-lobby money (nearly $17 million since 1987; Speaker Newt Gingrich got the most), killed the tougher standard last week. So let's raise a glass--or four--to the audacious more-careful-drunk theory.

But it's the tobacco crowd that leads the way in audacity. For years the industry denied liability for the almost 400,000 annual smoking-related deaths because everyone knew smoking could kill you--everyone, that is, but tobacco executives themselves! In 1996 they raised their nicotine-stained right hands before Congress and pleaded ignorance, a perjury charge Ken Starr could get his teeth into, if only he were not already representing these guys. When subpoenaed documents revealed an industry hell-bent on hooking kids, even tobacco's core congressional defenders blanched. Gingrich vowed he would be tougher than the President. The McCain bill, which raises the price of cigarettes to reduce teen smoking, sailed through the Senate Commerce Committee, 19 to 1.

But then the new Newt returned from his contrition tour promoting his book, Lessons Learned the Hard Way, and abruptly withdrew his support from the McCain effort, calling it "a big government, big bureaucracy" bill, language almost identical to the industry's. Had he suddenly bought into one of its most ludicrous arguments, that the price hike places an unfair burden on the poor, who smoke the most and, ironically, save the country money by dying early? Industry advocates contend that a smoker with a pack-a-day habit pays so much in cigarette tax and collects so much less in Social Security benefits that society ends up ahead. But isn't premature death as fiscal policy a little hard to square with right-to-life and family values?

Then there's the phony statistic that just a handful of smokers are teenagers. Sure, but only because 19-year-olds eventually turn 20. More than 90% of smokers begin as teenagers because even 20-year-olds are too mature to start up. Republicans are so addicted to tobacco money that they seem to be willing to risk kids' health and their majority in Congress for it. Gingrich's postelection book might be Lessons Learned the Really Hard Way.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: May 5, 1998

Sex, The Army And A Double Standard
Was the Fix Really In?
Strictly Hush-Hush
Dividing Line: James Earl Ray, Cause Celebre?
Washington Diary: On Capitol Hill, They'll Drink To That
S. B. Whitehead: SUBPOENA! DUCK!
Notebook: Unfriendly Skies


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