Let My Shareholders Go

By Holman Jenkins
Copyright 1998 Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Wall Street Journal (April 15, 1998)

One of the few things we become less cynical about with age is the handiwork of the founding fathers. Our democracy of contending forces delivers better results than we deserve.

But there are dangerous moments when a party's will to defend its real interests collapses--and the tobacco companies have real, material interests that won't go away as long as millions of people smoke. A vacuum is created. Al Gore, who once curried favor with tobacco farmers, is liberated to follow the dictates of his conscience, conveniently enough just as tobacco becomes a wildly defenseless punching bag. In their various ways, Newt Gingrich and John McCain have admitted that the industry has become so unpopular and vulnerable that Congress cannot legislate rationally. In the words of Newt, "tax the hell out of them."

It has been an ugly education for Steven Goldstone, RJR Nabisco's chief.

He took the job two years ago, a member of the class that slid into power just as the vilified seven of the 1994 Waxman hearings slid out. His predecessor, James Johnston, didn't deny the association between lung cancer and smoking, but threw down a challenge to lawmakers who believe smoking to be indefensible: "Stand up. Vote for prohibition--and be prepared for the consequences."

Mr. Johnston was a smoker, as were most of his colleagues. He could speak about the right of adults to make their own choices without sounding like a cad.

Like Mr. Goldstone, most of the folks running the industry now are nonsmokers who want out of the smoking business. RJR has only been waiting for a favorable climate in which to spin off the cigarettes from the cookies and crackers. Mr. Goldstone thought he could buy off the legal sharks and state politicians. He thought he could deliver peace and predictability for his shareholders.

He was wrong. When it comes to cigarettes, we have reached a point where no politician can afford not to wrap himself in hypocrisy. Smokers are embarrassed and furtive and won't stand up for their rights. It falls to the tobacco companies to serve as a brake on the political process. Only they possess the pecuniary stake and legal muscle. It would be desperately unwise, after all, to legislate as if the private behavior of 45 million people doesn't exist.

Irony 1: The avowed goal is to save kids from cigarettes. Yet smoking has increased a stunning 32% among teenagers, and 80% among black teenagers, in the last six years. The catechism blames this on tobacco advertising, which unseen by the naked eye has somehow become more insidious and alluring.

The truth is much simpler. Kids are smoking because smoking has become deliciously more transgressive. Only the political culture could have so quickly and thoroughly revived the cigarette's cachet as an emblem of rebellion instead of downward mobility.

Irony 2: In their hunger to "solve" the smoking problem in a way that enriches various constituencies, the Clintonites pretend that kids are making an economic decision. They claim that hiking up the price a buck and half over five years will cut smoking rates 50%.

As sophisticated studies at Cornell and the University of Maryland have shown, kids are the last customers to be deterred by higher prices. Youngsters who can scrape up $200 for marijuana when teenage prestige hangs on the line won't mind spending $4 for a pack of cigarettes. Drive up the price enough, though, and you will provide a new point of contact between teens and the criminal underworld.

Irony 3: The Clintonites justify their focus on teen smoking by noting that most adult smokers began as kids. But almost everyone tries tobacco sooner or later. It hardly matters whether they are 16 or 18.

Smoking does not kill teenagers; it kills adults who don't quit. Virtually all of the most successful initiatives have been aimed at getting adults to quit--50 million of them so far--when the romance of teenage risk-taking has waned and they become susceptible to health messages.

Years ago, the sociologist Joseph Gusfield launched a cottage industry when he asked why some "social problems" get lifted onto the public agenda and others don't. There can be no doubt that cigarettes are a symbolic evil for many voters. But this rests uneasily with the fact that the pith and force of today's political movement exists only because an industry's vulnerability has put large sums of money up for grabs.

Once these forces begin to coalesce around their redistributionist agenda, any progress on the underlying "social problem" tends to be incidental. The developing war over tobacco money leaves little reason for optimism. The White House's decision to flog the teen-smoking issue seems only to have heightened teen fascination with cigarettes.

In one important matter, Mr. Goldstone was more than a tad disingenuous last week. The survival of the industry and all those who depend on it would not be threatened by a new heap of taxes and lawsuits. The only thing threatened would be the diminishing portion of the proceeds still ending up in the pockets of the industry's shareholders.

With every political weakening of tobacco, Washington has edged the owners aside and grabbed a bigger share for itself. It already extracts twice as much in taxes as the industry does in profits. Under the McCain bill, it would be ten times as much. Even under the protection of a bankruptcy judge, the companies would keep on cranking out cigarettes, keep on extracting revenues from smokers for the benefit of government.

It was on his shareholders' behalf that Mr. Goldstone struck last summer's deal, and on their behalf that he vowed to return to the mattresses last week. Now he and his colleagues have to worry about baiting Congress on some careless afternoon into enacting a disastrous attempt to regulate cigarettes. The tobacco chiefs seem not to have a clue about where they'd like to end up.

To put this headache behind them, they should offer to sell their domestic cigarette businesses to the federal government. A fair price would take account of the uncertainty hanging over tobacco today, and the benefit to their stocks if relieved of that uncertainty. Washington would take over the quandary of whether to settle the lawsuits and compensate sick smokers.

The government seems bent on grabbing all the profits of smoking anyway. Let Washington take the blame for the millions of new teenage addicts who will be joining the ranks of regret in their wiser years. Let Washington finally decide whether it cares more about padding federal revenues--in which case it would keep promoting the cigarette brands it would now own--or about public health.

This at least would have the virtue of honesty that Mr. Johnston recommended to legislators four years ago.

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