Accuracy in Media

On May 20th, the New York Times raised some serious questions about the anti-tobacco frenzy that has gripped so many politicians and journalists. Concerning the claim by Senator McCain that the tobacco bill would stop 3,000 kids from starting smoking every day, the Times said that such claims were “wild estimates” based on projections, targets and assumptions, some of them faulty. The Times called the bill “the start of a vast social experiment whose outcome is by no means clear.”

That?s only true regarding the claim that the bill will sharply reduce smoking. The outcome in other areas is very clear: it will dramatically raise taxes and expand the authority of the federal government. One might say this is reasonable because smoking is a serious health hazard. But as Dr. Arthur B. Robinson points out, so are overeating and alcoholism. The greatest health hazard is probably automobile driving, with deaths on the highways about comparable each year to the total deaths in the Vietnam War. Does this mean that the federal government should follow its war on tobacco by targeting the food, alcohol and automobile industries?

Rather than put our hope in Washington politicians to stop smoking, the CBS 60 Minutes program indicated on May 24th that Hollywood might have more of an impact on these figures than anyone else. Airing a repeat of a 60 Minutes story, correspondent Leslie Stahl did a good job of highlighting how popular actors in film and television are smoking regularly. These include actors who play policemen and military officers. All of the most popular actors smoke in their films, including John Travolta and Bruce Willis, who influence the boys, and Winona Ryder, who influences the girls. In one case, 60 Minutes showed an agreement that had been signed between Sylvester Stallone and the Brown & Williamson tobacco company in which he agreed to use their brand for a fee of half-a-million dollars.

Years ago, Hollywood regarded smoking as a dirty habit, and characters were shown disapproving of its use in the films themselves. Today, Leslie Stahl said, “there seems to be more smoking than ever in the movies and on television.” She interviewed Joe Roth, the head of the Disney movie studio, who said he would agree to ask his producers and directors to discourage on-air smoking in films—but only in family-oriented movies.

Hollywood is an inviting target and yet the Clinton Administration has decided to go after the tobacco industry. Could this have anything to do with the fact that Hollywood has traditionally supported Democrats while the tobacco industry has supported Republicans? You would have to be politically naive not to recognize this fact. The plot gets more interesting when you consider that trial lawyers, who also support Democrats, are in a position to reap billions of dollars in legal fees from the tobacco bill. This is an outcome just as certain as the tax increases that would result.

By exposing the phony figures behind the bill, the New York Times has opened the door to an understanding of how politically partisan this bill actually is. It benefits certain political interests allied with Clinton.

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