First things first: Smoking is bad for your health. I don’t condone it by any means. I watched my grandpa die a slow, brutal death which was single-handedly caused by cigarettes. I hope I never have to watch something so terrible again.

But the government has no business placing numerous restrictions on tobacco companies because they deem tobacco dangerous to our health — in part because every American should be free to choose whether not to smoke, and in part because whenever the government intervenes and makes that choice for the individual, it tends to make the wrong one.

A new law, signed yesterday by President Barack Obama, places heavy restrictions on tobacco companies and interferes with their ability to sell their product. The legislation creates further restrictions on how companies can advertise and what types of products they can sell. The new legislation limits what the tobacco companies can name their products (the words “mild” and “light” will no longer be seen on cigarette packages, because those words have obviously tricked consumers into thinking that those types are less dangerous than other cigarettes), what they can put on the package (50% of the front and rear must be a warning label), and where they can sell them (most retailers will have to be adults-only facilities). Tobacco companies could potentially stand to take a big financial hit from these restrictions, and it’s all because Washington politicians want to pretend to be moral leaders to their constituents.

While cigarettes are dangerous to one’s health, they can’t be used to intentionally harm someone else (unless someone thinks it’s funny to put their cig out on someone else’s arm, which hurts like the dickens). The government doesn’t restrict other products in which excessive use can be health-hazardous, like fast food or energy drinks. But since complications from tobacco use claims over 440,000 lives a year, according to the American Cancer Society, cigarettes are an easy target.

But at what point is the government taking too much of a hands-on approach in making consumer’s choices for them? Why doesn’t McDonalds have to put a warning label on their cheeseburgers cautioning consumers that excessive consumption might cause heart problems? Why doesn’t Nabisco have to put a warning on their Oreos that too much sugar leads to obesity, which can lead to complications like Type 2 diabetes?

It’s a double-standard against tobacco companies. Tobacco companies have a right to sell their product at their own discretion. The government is wrong to make value judgments on which corporations are making harmful products and which are not. The market will naturally decide which products are the most harmful by virtue of which products consumers want the most — the government doesn’t have to get involved.

This new legislation might even have a counter effect on what it’s supposed to do. The bill was supported by Phillip Morris, the biggest cigarette maker in the world. It’s curious that a cigarette manufacturer would support a bill aimed to curb tobacco use. But it turns out that the bill places restrictions on how smokeless tobacco products — which are far less dangerous than cigarettes — can be marketed. These products are no longer allowed to be marketed as a safer or less damaging alternative to cigarettes.

By making it less apparent that these alternatives are safer, this bill actually hurts public health by disguising a healthier alternative to smoking. Whether this was intentional (meant to cater to Big Tobacco) or unintentional (Congressmen tend not to think things through — national healthcare, Iraq War, etc.), this is one of the most counter-productive pieces of legislation so far this year. It actually makes safer tobacco options harder to acquire.

This is sickening. The new legislation actually threatens the health of the America consumer by artificially selecting cigarettes over safer tobacco products. The politicians’ approach to this legislation has made it clear how shortsighted their insight into the bill actually is. One would think that support from a tobacco giant for an anti-tobacco bill would be a hint that it isn’t helping public health as much as one should expect, but obviously Washington didn’t notice, or didn’t care.

Ed McPhee can be reached at emcphee@umich.edu.

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