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This Is a Smoke-free Battlefield

July 11, 2009

From USA Today via Ed Morrisey:

Pentagon health experts are urging Defense Secretary Robert Gates to ban the use of tobacco by troops and end its sale on military property[.]

There are two things important about this. Firstly the very obvious: Those who are in favour of forcing the troops to quit smoking know that they would never have a chance to succeed with such a proposal with any other constituency. It is the fact that the men and women of the US armed services take their oath seriously and are not prone to rebel that allows politicians and bureaucrats to set up regulations for the troops which they wouldn’t dare to even suggest concerning other groups of people because of a political backlash that would be severe and sure to come. In that sense policy makers in the Pentagon (and elsewhere) unduly exploit the decency of the troops.

The second thing is that we have to remember the underlying (and undisguised) argument of the advocated tobacco ban: health care costs. Veterans health care is financed with tax payer money, ie by the government. Of course, tax payer money is in short supply these days (it always is, but it is extremely so since the Age of Obama has begun, go figure) and some smart people (“experts”) found that the only way out of that situation is to ask the Defense Secretary to spell out a ban on tobacco use. One wonders, will the next thing they will ask to be banned be body armor? After all, a dead soldier costs the VA health care system so much less than a severely wounded one.

But there is more. Once the “public option” has been introduced into the general health care sector it will out-bid all private insurers with lower rates etc. (That’s a natural advantage a tax-payer financed service has: as long as you assume there will be future generations to tax your funds are endless, hence you can get and offer better deals.) Sooner or later large numbers, if not all, of Americans will be insured by the government. It goes without saying that a government-run health insurance for the general population will be just as cash-trapped (if not more so) as the VA health system currently is.* So, tell me, what will keep the health czar or whoever will be the “health expert” du jour from imposing a tobacco ban on everyone whose health coverage is with the “public option”?

“Ah, you just said that no one would dare imposing a tobacco ban on anyone except the military because of a political backlash, so you are contradicting yourself if you now suggest that the general public would be forced to quit smoking!”, you say. You get a point for paying attention but I have to contradict you, the French Cowboy responds. It is true that today an outright ban on tobacco would be politically infeasible. But what about ten years from now? What will be different? Crushing health care costs of a public system, gigantic national debt, presumably an enormous deficit. And beyond that the tobacco industry will have been in bed with government for ten more years and may have come to a nice agreement on retirement or might have found itself facing an offer it couldn’t refuse. Also, ten more years of campaigning against tobacco will have been passed. En plus, Obama may have finally succeeded in breaking the habit.

“But”, you say, “the scenario you are describing sounds as if people wouldn’t be interested in smoking anyway, so a national ban would be a good thing.” Ahh, that is correct in theory. But the caveat is that banning tobacco use is not a goal of the administration because it really would be better for the nation as a whole if we all were non-smokers, but because smoking sometimes results in the need for costly therapies. Costly for the government, that is. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the White House wouldn’t ban other pleasures of life just because of the potential cost factor. White House advisors have already said they would like to restrict consumption of salt, of beer, and of soft drinks. Time to ask: Where to draw the line?

As long as you pay for your own health care no bureaucrat or politician has a right to tell you what to eat or drink or how many times per week to work out. Once “the public” has to pay the tab (in double sense of the word) for your treatment should you fall ill, “the public”, or those who claim to represent it, has a (sadly) valid point when saying that your lifestyle is of everyone’s concern. You don’t want “the public” to have a say in your daily life, from your fridge, to your week-end activities, to, yes, your bedroom.

Returning to the case of banning tobacco for the troops, because functioning national defence is the prerequisite for any political, economic or social activity, paying for veterans’ health care with public funds makes sense. Soldiers risk their health and their lives so that the public can consider things beyond mere survival in the first place, so the public owes their defenders a decent health system and more. This relationship of interdependence shouldn’t be abused through the imposing of what are strikingly unfair regulations for the troops compared to the careful handling of policies towards civilians.


*If you don’t see why a government-run health care system is doomed to create deficits, consider Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: they have set into motion a financial tornado because of typical ‘politics’ and too heavy a reliance on their implicit government backing. Of course this ended up in explicit government backing. When you know the Treasury won’t allow you to go broke you live beyond your means. The French Cowboy has yet to find a government-run entitlement programme that is fiscally disciplined.

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