NOTIONS: Health: another troubled bridge over U.S. waters

August 13, 2007

On a bookshelf in my office, I display a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, three packs of Benson & Hedges cigarettes and the program from my late wife's memorial service.

I display the pasta because, until the company was spun off earlier this year, Kraft Foods was part of Altria Group.

I display the Benson & Hedges because that brand is part of Phillip Morris USA, which is also part of Altria Group.

I display the memorial-service program because my late wife fell victim to secondhand smoke. And since Altria Group's Philip Morris USA enjoys a U.S. market share of nearly 50 percent, chances are good they helped kill her.

I display all three to remind myself of the bizarre "logic" in America: The former Altria product that provides some nutritional value and minimal health risk (the mac and cheese) is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, while the current Altria product with no nutritional value, the addictive power of heroin and more killing power than alcohol, AIDS, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined (the cigarettes) is not regulated by the FDA.

But hey, when it comes to preventive maintenance for humans in this country, what's logic got to do with it?

A few days ago in Minneapolis, a highway bridge collapsed. Some people were killed. Many more were injured. And the Twin Cities' economy will suffer the consequences for years.

In the wake of this debacle, we learned that many U.S. bridges are overdue for repair and maintenance. We also learned that highway-funding bills often include far more dollars for pet projects than for upkeep and overhaul. And we learned that the federal government's percentage of highway funding has steadily declined over the past 50 years-another mandate dumped on state and local taxpayers.

We also learned that the "no new taxes" mantra can come back to haunt. Last week, The New York Times reported that Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty "twice vetoed legislation to raise the state's gas tax to pay for transportation needs."

But, alas, he's now had a change of heart. "He's open to that," the governor's spokesman told the Times. "He believes we need to do everything we can to address this situation and the extraordinary costs." (Kind of makes one proud that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels repeatedly resisted calls to reduce our state's gas tax in the face of rising petrol prices.)

But in a larger sense, the bridge fiasco in Minnesota symbolizes perfectly how we address human assets in this country.

On the presidential campaign trail, nary a debate goes by without a question addressing our nation's health care system. And when asked, the candidates invariably cite their seven- or 12-point proposal for treating what ails us.

But more often than not, the candidates' answers are about fixing health care and curing health coverage-not promoting better health.

As a nation, we rarely talk about preventing Humpty Dumpty's great fall. Instead, we talk incessantly about the king's horses' and king's men's inability to put Humpty together again. In fact, our king's men not only argue ad nauseum over how best to treat sickness (and pay for it); some of them actually defend to the death (including my late wife's) our right to make ourselves sick.

Congress is considering legislation that would give the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco. If it passes, the FDA could, among other things: regulate ingredients to cut down on carcinogens and addictive nicotine; mandate more effective warnings on cigarette packaging; wipe out flavored additives that appeal to kids; restrict advertising that lures new smokers; and prohibit misleading terms such as "light," "mild" and "low-tar."

Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in America. It annually kills more than 400,000 people. It costs the nation more than $96 billion in health care bills, and another $97.6 billion in productivity losses.

A recent poll found that 70 percent of voters support this legislation, including strong majorities of Republicans (72 percent), Democrats (71 percent), independents (68 percent) and smokers (63 percent).

But Indiana Rep. Baron Hill, who sits on the House committee that will first hear this legislation, hasn't signed on.

Why even hesitate on such politically popular, health-protecting, cost-saving legislation? Well, Hill's spokeswoman, Katie Moreau, told the Jeffersonville News and Tribune that Rep. Hill "does not want to commit to supporting the legislation until he determines how it might affect tobacco growers in his district" and that "You have to balance government involvement versus people's civil liberties."

In other words: Tobacco growers'alreadysubsidized profits matter more than your escalating health care costs, and the smokers' right to kill supersedes anyone else's right to life.

So, next time your favorite bridge collapses (or your spouse's lungs, for that matter), call Rep. Hill. I'm sure he'll share his sevenor 12-step plan.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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