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Would you rather your teenager smoke or cheat?

Tuesday, Jul 15, 2003

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Decades of lecturing around America and of speaking with parents on my radio show have led me to an incredible conclusion: More American parents would be upset with their teenage children if they smoked a cigarette than if they cheated on a test.

How has this come about? This is, after all, an entirely new phenomenon. Almost no member of my generation (those who became teenagers in the 1960s), let alone a member of any previous generation, could ever have imagined that parents would be angrier with their teenage child for smoking than for cheating.

There has been a profound change in American values. In a nutshell, health has overtaken morality. Or, if you prefer, health has become our morality.

The war against tobacco is both a cause and a symptom of this moral confusion. It has saturated American society with the belief that smoking is wrong, even immoral, not simply unhealthy.

Anti-smoking zealots (the term is redundant) in the California Department of Health Services launched a statewide billboard campaign equating cigarettes with drugs. Parents call my show to tell me that when their children see someone smoking, they say, “Look, that person is using drugs!”

Judges in child custody disputes have imbibed the moral idiocy that smoking tells us something about a person’s character. An increasing number of judges take smoking into consideration when choosing which parent is more fit to raise a child. Millions of Americans agree with these judges that smoking is a moral flaw. That is one reason the government airbrushes cigarettes out of pictures of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other famous Americans. If a young American were to see President Roosevelt smoking a cigarette or Sir Winston Churchill smoking a cigar, what might happen to that child’s wholehearted acceptance of the smoking-is-bad (not merely unhealthy) brainwash?

I smoke a pipe and cigar, and I am amazed at the certitude and chutzpah in the 5-year-olds who have visited my home who confidently walked over to me to tell me I shouldn’t smoke! Had they seen me drinking alcohol, as children regularly see adults do, it would never occur to them to say such a thing.

That we have a war against tobacco rather than alcohol well illustrates the moral confusion of our time. Eighty years ago, when American society warred against a vice, it was alcohol — because the society cared more about fighting evil than fighting potential dangers to health. Alcohol leads to more child and spousal abuse as well as to murder and rape than any other single factor. Was one child ever abused because a cigarette or pipe dulled an adult’s conscience? Have any drivers ever killed whole families because they smoked before they drove?

But in this Age of Moral Confusion we have chosen tobacco, not alcohol, as the villain. Because health and living long are our greatest values.

When I was a boy, I attended baseball games where most spectators smoked, but none cursed. Today there is no smoking at ballparks, but obscene language is shouted out with impunity. We have traded in opposition to firsthand cursing for opposition to secondhand smoke.

So, ask your children if they think you would be more disappointed in their smoking or their cheating. If your child responds “smoking,” you are morally failing your child. If you are pleased with that answer, the situation is even worse. If enough Americans prefer that their children cheat than smoke, we are a doomed society. Nor can the issue be avoided by claiming you don’t want your child to either smoke or cheat. That just means you can’t say that cheating is far worse than smoking. You are another American led to believe that healthy and decent are synonymous.

But if you do believe that, ponder these questions: Would you rather your business partner smoke or cheat? Your lawyer? Your friends? Would you feel better if your doctor cheated on medical exams or smoked?

The questions would have been considered absurd a generation ago. The war against tobacco is a symptom and cause of a shallower society. It has done far more harm to America than tobacco. Just ask your teenager.

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