Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why cigarettes are here to stay

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
April 30, 2013 -- Updated 1524 GMT (2324 HKT)
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
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT