It handed out cigarettes to vulnerable Americans, subsidized the purchase of cigarettes it didn't hand out free, provided "smoke breaks" to those who enjoyed them, and otherwise encouraged their use with nifty little slogans. "Smoke 'em if you got 'em," the saying went.
Philip Morris, perhaps? R.J. Reynolds? No. The federal government. Uncle Sam encouraged tobacco use among U.S. soldiers to calm their jangled nerves in wartime. Ironically, the government hitting up the tobacco companies for funds to cover the cost of addicting children to a dangerous product is the very same government trying to duck its obligations to veterans now suffering from what they say are tobacco-related illnesses.
First the Clinton administration, which has been at the front lines of the anti-tobacco wars, submitted a budget that did not provide the funds to cover the estimated $10 billion needed to treat the veterans' tobacco-related disabilities. Now the Senate Public Works and Environment Committee, headed by John Chafee, has decided it will spend the veterans' rehab money for more pork-barrel road projects. Said a spokesman for the American Legion, "We're hearing that smoking is a self-inflicted problem" that the feds won't pay for.
Nicholas Graham, a spokesman for Mr. Chafee, says that Mr. Chafee himself had picked up the cigarette habit while serving in the military but had subsequently managed to quit. The responsibility for smoking, Mr. Graham says, is the smoker's. "No one addicts you," he says. "The military doesn't addict you."
How about the tobacco companies? Do they addict you? Mr. Graham acknowledges there might be an "inconsistency" between highly publicized attempts to get the tobacco industry to provide compensation for smoking victims and the government's refusal to compensate veterans in similar fashion. He said Mr. Chafee had no part in drawing up the former and was bound by budget constraints with respect to the latter.
As it happens, Mr. Chafee and his spokesman are right that "no one addicts you." But the whole premise of the tobacco legislation introduced by Sen. John McCain and now being debated on the Senate floor is that someone can "addict" you.
That being the case, U.S. veterans have a far stronger claim for health-care compensation than do civilians. Said the American Legion in a statement: "Historically, the federal government, represented by the Department of Defense, and before that the Department of War, has been one of the largest purveyors of tobacco in the United States. Consider the four-pack of cigarettes issued in K and C rations, the $1 cartons in the PX and Commissaries and the whole military culture of 'smoke 'em if you got 'em,' and 'the smoking lamp is lit throughout the ship." "Even at one of the bloodiest battles of history, the assault on Iwo Jima, the armed forces brought in . . . cigarettes with the materials of war. Throughout history, tobacco has been distributed to servicemen and women, courtesy of their 'Uncle Sam.' This point is important because smoking was demonstrably an integral part of the military culture, bolstered by sanctioned smoke breaks, cheap tobacco and widespread usage by everyone from one-term teen-agers to lifers. If 'Joe Camel' ads are responsible for civilian addiction, as the courts have ruled, then the military is equally culpable, if not more so."
The Veterans Administration has acknowledged as much. In 1993, and again in 1997, the VA's general counsel issued an opinion that the military's past practices appeared to "encourage" tobacco use and that the department could be held liable for the health problems that might result. But none of that matters now, not when there is highway pork to be had.
What's happening to veterans is emblematic of the larger tobacco issue now under consideration in the Senate. No matter what pieties advocates utter in the name of tobacco restrictions, this controversy has never been about protecting children, veterans or anyone else. It's about money, the kind you shake down from tobacco companies or the kind you deny to aging soldiers. If it's money the veterans want, tell them not to serve their country in battle. Tell them to try building roads.
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