Don Surber: What King Coal can learn from tobacco

Swinging through Ohio on Sept. 22, 2008, in his campaign for the vice presidency, then-Sen. Joe Biden assured a strident opponent of coal that he opposes coal.

“No coal plants here in America,” Biden said. “Build them, if they’re going to build them, over there. Make them clean. We’re not supporting clean coal.”

Reporters covering him said it was a gaffe.

This week, President Obama made good on Biden’s promise by imposing oppressive restrictions on the burning of coal. His administration contends that this will save 2,700 to 6,000 people from premature deaths.


The government could save 80 to 178 times as many lives simply by banning tobacco.

The facts, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

* Smoking kills more than 480,000 people annually.

* Smoking shortens one’s life expectancy by 10 years.

* More than 16 million people already have at least one disease from smoking.

* Since the surgeon general first declared smoking hazardous to one’s health, more than 20 million Americans died from smoking-related illnesses.

* Smoking costs $133 billion in direct medical care annually.

* Smoking costs $156 billion in lost productivity annually.

Clearly, the government knows that this is a dangerous product that not only kills people but harms the economy. The government has known this for 50 years. And yet the government continues to participate in this destruction.


“In fiscal year 2014, states will collect $25.7 billion from tobacco taxes and legal settlements, but states will spend only 1.9 percent of the $25.7 billion on prevention and cessation programs,” the CDC reported.

According to the tobacco industry, government revenues from tobacco are eight times greater than the industry’s profits.

That’s right, America, greedy government rakes in big bucks from killing people, giving only a pittance of window-dressing to smoking cessation. In this case, it’s OK to kill 480,000 geese that lay those golden eggs. There are plenty more where they come from.

Even the CDC recommends spending only 15 percent of that tobacco loot on smoke cessation.

How can government be greedy?

Law professor Glenn Reynolds explained it on Tuesday in his weekly column in the USA Today, in his assessing of the Veterans Affairs hospital scandal.

“Ironically, a for-profit medical system might actually offer employees less room for greed than a government system,” Reynolds wrote. “That’s because VA patients were stuck with the VA. If wait times were long, they just had to wait, or do without care. In a free-market system, a provider whose wait times were too long would lose business, and even if the employees faked up the wait-time numbers, that loss of business would show up on the bottom line. That would lead top managers to act, or lose their jobs.

“In the VA system, however, the losses didn’t show up on the bottom line because, well, there isn’t one. Instead, the losses were diffused among the many patients who went without care -- visible to them, but not to the people who ran the agency, who relied on the cooked-books numbers from their bonus-seeking underlings.”

For the record, there are plenty of good VA facilities. But Medicaid and Medicare do not work that way. They use the free market. Veterans who need government assistance are subjected to government-run health care.

The greed of the bureaucrats reflects the greed of the legislators, governors, Congress and the president who continue to risk the public’s health in order to keep $25.7 billion flowing into the government each year.

There is a big lesson for the coal industry from this refusal of government to ban smoking.

The coal industry should do what the tobacco industry did and just buy off the government with a nice coal “settlement.”

Consider Utah, which is dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. Mormons may not smoke but it does not stop them from raking in $124 million a year from tobacco.

Surely the less ethical liberals of California, Oregon and Massachusetts will not turn down coal money.

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