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Fifty years on

Jan 9, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

The smoking report and 'war on poverty' show pros and cons of government intervention

The nearly simultaneous anniversaries of two major federal initiatives demonstrate both the effectiveness and limitations of an all-out, big-government attack on a problem.

Fifty years ago this month, the U.S. Surgeon General issued his landmark report on the dangers of cigarette smoking. It laid out all the grisly health consequences of this ugly habit, and it also put in place strict labeling requirements for cigarettes and limited advertising exposure and content.

Just a few days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson used his State of the Union address to call for a sweeping series of government regulations, legislation and social adjustments through the courts in a full-scale "war on poverty" that was part of LBJ's Great Society program.

Both of these federal efforts worked -- to a point. In 1964, about half of all American adults smoked cigarettes, and cigarette smoking had almost no restrictions on it. Those too young to remember those days would find it astonishing to travel back in time and witness the pervasiveness of cigarette smoking in homes, businesses, government offices, school gymnasiums, concert halls, theaters, hospitals and churches.

Today, only about 18 percent of Americans smoke cigarettes, and they are restricted severely on where they can smoke. For most people, except for the smokers themselves, exposure to cigarette smoke is a rare thing.

Similarly, the war on poverty and the Great Society program brought about huge changes in the public "safety net" that today are taken for granted. Social Security, Medicare, vaccination programs, school breakfasts, wheelchair ramps, higher unemployment benefits, worker's compensation, occupational safety standards, and air and water quality protections now are widely accepted as either necessary, desirable or both.

In the first decade after the war on poverty began, the American poverty rate was cut nearly in half.

These huge federal efforts demonstrated that governmental action, proaction and intervention can have a wide effect.

But the war on poverty and smoking cessation campaigns eventually hit a plateau, after which their effectiveness plummeted. There still are 43 million American cigarette smokers. About the same number live in poverty. It's been hard to cut into those numbers. The poverty rate actually has climbed this century, and the smoker rate has decreased only sparingly in the past 15 years. Reportedly, more people are starting to smoke these days than at any time in the past 25 years.

This is not to say that more progress cannot be made, but it does suggest that after an initial period of momentum and enthusiasm, further advancement through this methodology is much harder gained. The law of diminishing returns kicks in, and political support wanes.

If there is a moral to the story, perhaps it is that we don't always do what we know is good for us, either as individuals or societies. We know we shouldn't smoke, yet millions of us do it. We know having poor, hungry children isn't a good thing for a great country, yet we argue over what to do about it and if anything even can be done.

How much should we require of ourselves? How much freedom should we have to harm ourselves? What is the public role in trying to improve conditions for the neediest among us? Can we legislate not only against criminal behavior, but against unwise behavior as well?

We humans are a long way from perfect. The arguments will continue, as will the bad habits. Let's make sure the good intentions do as well. Without them, the rest of the discussions are moot.

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