Cigarette Smoking and the Church's "Pro-Life" Position

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This week's announcement by Philip Morris that it plans a "global blitz" to dramatically increase the number of cigarette smokers around the world represents the ultimate public health nightmare.

The industry's insidious strategies to modify cigarettes to meet changing cultural and social needs will add to the allure of this inherently dangerous product: the soon-to-be-launched "Marlboro Intense" will allow smokers to cope with indoor smoking bans by taking quick, deep puffs of a shorter but more potent cigarette during a quick outdoor break, while innovative clove-infused cigarettes will suit the taste of smokers in Southeastern Asia. The end results will be hundreds of millions of new cigarette addicts and the inevitable surge in the full spectrum of devastating cigarette-related diseases. Not only will the increase in smoking lead to soaring numbers of premature deaths, but the economies of these countries will suffer devastating losses due as large portions of their workforce are incapacitated and demand smoking-related medical care.

Altria brags that by spinning off Philip Morris International, the newly-independent company will be outside of the reach of most regulatory efforts and threats of legal liability. It considers itself autonomous, responsible to no one at all.

Where is the outrage at this brazen campaign that will cause the deaths of millions of people in the next several decades?

Where, for example, is the voice of the Roman Catholic Church, which is apparently so committed to a "pro-life" position? Why are they not deeply concerned about the lives of the millions who will soon die from this now-intensified Philip Morris sales blitz?

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To say that the Roman Catholic Church's stance on the public and personal health implications of cigarette smoking has been dismal would be an understatement. The Church has been largely mute on the subject, more concerned with the moral depravity of alcohol and illicit drug use than smoking. Indeed back in the 1950s, when the avalanche of data on smoking and disease began to hit the medical journals, the cigarette companies were terrified that the Catholic Church might make a pronouncement about smoking's imperiling of human life and health.

But the Church did not. Of course, the tobacco folks had a real scare back in 1957 when Pope Pius XII suggested that the Jesuit order give up smoking. There were only 33,000 Jesuits in the world at that point, so the industry was not afraid of losing lots of priest-customers. But they did worry that the Pope might eventually ask the question, as a magazine headline once put it: "When Is a Cig a Sin?" -- and, worse yet, that the answer might be "always."

So the spin doctors in the industry worked on the Pope's Jesuit statement and came up with this: an industry rep wrote in the United States Tobacco Journal, "the Jesuits have a way of life that is traditionally stricter than other segments of the clergy or laity in general." What the Pope was really saying, the industry argued, was that cigarette smoke is good fun and pleasurable, and the only reason Jesuits should not smoke is that they are supposed to reject human gratification. Thus smoking is fine for everyone else!

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Some twenty years ago, while preparing a book on the history of the cigarette in America (A Smoking Gun: How the Tobacco Industry Gets Away With Murder, Stickley, 1984), I wrote to the Cardinal of New York and asked him why the Church had no pronouncements on cigarettes, the leading cause of premature death -- a clear threat to the value of life. The letter I received back was scathing, calling me stupid and naive, arguing that I had obviously not traveled outside the U.S. much and seen poverty and hunger -- otherwise, I would not be worrying about something as trivial as cigarette smoking.

As a public health professional, I do not consider 485,000 premature deaths annually in the United States to be "trivial." And I am outraged to see the ongoing marketing of cigarettes here in our country. But the recently-announced move by Philip Morris to addict hundreds of millions more people in Africa, China, Korea, Russia, and beyond is nothing short of appalling. As this international massacre continues -- indeed, intensifies -- is silence by the Church compatible with a pro-life commitment, or is it just sheer hypocrisy?

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).