John Belushi, dead at 33 from a reported overdose of cocaine and heroin, is already cited as an example to us all. His death proves, or is supposed to prove, that cocaine and heroin are mean, awful drugs that addict, enslave and then kill. Why stop with Belushi, though? How about Roy?
Roy is someone I know. He was once a successful man. He handled the books for a large corporation and he raised four good children and every year at Christmas he had a wonderful party for all the kids. He made sure there were gifts for everyone and games to be played and food and drink for the adults. Throughout the party, though, Roy was taking his drug.
He was addicted to the thing. He could not stop taking it. He used it all the time, and slowly, over the course of time, it made him very sick. One year, at the annual Christmas party, he looked just awful. He was weak and could hardly walk and when he breathed, he had to do it with the aid of a portable oxygen tank. Roy had emphysema and the drug he took was cigarettes.
Oh, but I am being cute, I hear you say. Cigarettes are not a drug (but nicotine is) and anyway they are not quite the same thing as heroin or cocaine. True, but then heroin and cocaine are illegal substances. They are not sold in every drug store and from machines and kids do not stand outside the roller skating rink, as they do here in Washington, shooting up either coke or heroin. They are smoking, though, and they are sure as shooting killing themselves.
Of course, we do not see things that way. The familiar almost never seems menacing and so we have a hard time recognizing things for what they really are. Belushi dies of an overdose and all the world learns once again the truth about hard drugs. But when William Holden bleeds to death in a drunken stupor, the villain is not considered to be booze but something else--maybe the victims themselves.
Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to cigarettes. Here is a product that is a proven killer. The surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, no flaming liberal he, says that smoking is the cause of one-third of all cancer deaths. "Cigarette smoking is clearly identified as the chief preventable cause of death in our society," and, he said, "the most important public health issue of our time." Smoking, Koop said, is not only a major cause of lung cancer, but also of cancers of the larynx, mouth and upper throat and esophagus as well.
In addition, the surgeon general reported that smoking is a "contributing factor" in the development of cancers of the bladder, pancreas and kidney. All in all, smoking may account for something like 340,000 deaths a year. This is a lot more than the number of people who die from drug overdoses, and yet we spend more time and more energy combating drugs than we do combating cigarettes.
In fact, of course, we don't really combat cigarette smoking at all. While the industry is forced to put a health warning on every pack (and in its advertising) this has hardly put an end to smoking. Sixty million Americans are habitual smokers and they are enticed to stay that way (or become new smokers) by an industry advertising budget of about $1 billion a year. Want to pick up a girl, enhance a vacation, appreciate food, enjoy a rainy day, get a kick out of a bubbling brook--smoke a cigarette.
Cigarettes remain the great exception. If any other product killed and maimed on this scale, it would hardly be allowed to be sold, not to mention advertised. But that's nothing. The government pronounces cigarettes a health menace, yet through the price support program it helps subsidize the industry. Cigarettes are addictive, dangerous, foul and (just to add insult to injury) cause forest fires, yet the great debate at the moment is whether to strengthen the health warning.
The whole thing is ridiculous. You could put a skull and crossbones on the pack and people would still buy it. They are hooked. They have a habit. They are addicted to a substance that can kill them slowly, and yet the government refuses to treat cigarettes the way it does hard drugs. Why? Having a Washington lobby does not change the facts of the matter. A killer is a killer. John Belushi proves that.
And so does Roy.