At the outset, let me say that I do not smoke. Let me also say that I used to smoke, and would do so today if I weren’t afraid of lung cancer. I really do not know whether or not smoking causes lung cancer, but I cannot afford to risk finding out the hard way that it does. In February 1994 a spot turned up during a routine x-ray and I now have a smaller right lung than most people. I have grudgingly given up smoking because there is a chance that the antismoking zealots could possibly be right. I would, however, like to inquire into what is today considered tobacco gospel.

In my case I spent a good part of my youth in close contact with asbestos lagging on steam pipes, I have held the fiber in my hand, and even sniffed at it to see if it had an odor. Later in life I spent a little over eighteen years as a Panama Canal pilot. In this capacity I used to lean over the side of transiting ships with my face in the exhaust stream of assisting tugboats. The diesel fumes were awful. Holding a handkerchief over the nose helped a little, but not much. I also lived for two years in Japan’s highly polluted Kanto Plain. Throw in the ordinary assortment of carcinogens in the air and you should have enough personal history to justify lung problems without resort to blaming tobacco. Nobody was interested in that stuff, though. As I was being lifted from the gurney to a bed in post-op I heard the nurse say, with a suitably grave voice, “Lung cancer. He was a heavy smoker.” I was too drowsy to take issue with her, but I remember feeling very annoyed. For three or four years prior to developing the cancer I had limited myself to six cigarettes a day. I was not a heavy smoker. I had been a heavier smoker in the past, but I also had plenty of other risk factors, which everyone chose to ignore.

How did we develop this anti-tobacco bias? This country owes its very existence to tobacco. If the Virginians hadn’t discovered tobacco as a cash crop, the colonial experiment would very likely have failed. How did we get so many people who are “allergic” to tobacco smoke? When I was a boy I don’t remember anyone’s being allergic to tobacco smoke. Now, a very large percentage of mankind seems to believe itself to be allergic to tobacco smoke. How did that happen? When I was a boy I remember only two persons who suffered maladies that might have been traced to tobacco. An elderly great uncle had a cancer on his lip that might have been linked to pipe smoking, and an acquaintance of the family contracted throat cancer. I know of no one else from my youth who might have been harmed by tobacco. Is tobacco more dangerous now than it was when I was a boy?

Apparently, there is a good deal of statistical evidence that links tobacco with various diseases, including lung cancer. How does one get that kind of evidence? Who was collecting that statistical information and why? There are people in this country who consider smoking to be sinful. Was the information collected for the purpose of proving the harmfulness of a sinful substance?

For years the plaintiff’s bar has been trying to get into the pockets of the tobacco companies using the statistical evidence linking smoking to illness. Until recently the courts have quite rightly stated that if there is a link between tobacco and disease, the plaintiff’s assumption of the risk would bar recovery. Lately, however, the tobacco companies seem to be on the run. They are caving in under the weight the federal government and an increasingly hostile judiciary. The States now have their hands out claiming that tobacco causes them to spend a lot of money on indigent sick people. I wonder how the tobacco related expenses compare with the amount of money spent by government on AIDS treatment. Is anyone suing bathhouse operators?

On graduating from high school, a boyhood friend of mine went off to study at St. Louis University. So far as I know he is still there, teaching. He was a history major, and one of his professors was a fellow named Kurt von Schuschnigg. Schuschnigg was a very interesting person with something of a first hand view of, what was then, recent history. Schuschnigg had been Chancellor of Austria in 1938. When Adolf Hitler summoned him to Berlin to discuss Austria’s future, he went. His predecessor had been murdered by a band of Austrian Nazis. In Berlin, Schuschnigg was ushered into a very large room to await the presence of the Fuehrer, who was a long time in getting to the meeting. Schuschnigg was a chain smoker, and after a rather long wait under circumstances not conducive to gastrotranquility, he decided he had to have a cigarette. As soon as he lit the thing his host swept majestically into the room. When Hitler saw the cigarette he exploded. Knocking the offensive weed from Schuschnigg’s mouth, he shouted, “What are you trying to do, poison my air!” The moral of this story is that Hitler wasn’t really a bad person. He was just ahead of his time.