Workplace smoking policies move backward

February 9, 2009

Let's suppose that Indiana was a backward place. Not backward as in backwater. Backward as in the Oscar-nominated f lm "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." In other words, a place where things happen in reverse order.

Now unto the Statehouse in this inverse Hoosierland comes a cadre of business owners. Accompanied by their lobbyists, they arrive at the Capitol one cold winter afternoon for a public hearing before a House of Representatives committee.

The bill in question seems like a long shot. It would abdicate government's responsibility for protecting citizens' health and safety, and place it in the hands of individual business owners.

It would abdicate government's responsibility for protecting the environment, and leave that—totally unregulated—to individual business owners, too.

It would add billions to the cost of health care for government and private payors.

It would hook millions of people—including children—on a highly addictive drug.

It would make tens of thousands of people sick every year.

And it would, in the words of Ebenezer Scrooge "reduce the surplus population" by killing 10,000 or so Hoosiers annually.

Yet, the bill has found a sponsor, been assigned to a committee and gotten a hearing.

Why? Because in exchange for passage, the cadre of business owners has agreed to share the wealth from their addictive substance, via various forms of taxation, with the cash-starved state.

"Mr. Chairman," says the first government witness, "on behalf of our trade association, our member corporations, the Hoosiers we employ and the customers we serve, I thank you for this opportunity to speak here today.

"Now, Mr. Chairman, these are tough times. Tough times! Some of the toughest times we've seen since the Great Depression. And you know that state government is hurting, just as our businesses are hurting.

"But I'm pleased to let you know, honorable representatives, that we've come up with a solution that will ensure a long-term revenue stream not only for our businesses, not only for state government, but also for physicians, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and, yes, funeral homes, crematoriums, florists and cemeteries—for decades to come. This is economic development with a capital E."

"Sounds too good to be true," says the chairman. "What's the catch?"

"There is none," says the witness. "That's the beauty of our model. Let me explain.

"You see, the bill before you is based on the most fundamental of all business principles—that the very best way to make money is to make something for a dime, sell it for a dollar and make it habit-forming."

"That is simple," says Rep. Smith.

"Yes it is," says the witness. "And profitable!

"So here's our plan: With your blessing—as granted in this legislation—we're going to fill our establishments with an addictive haze. It will get into people's lungs, into their bloodstreams, into their brains. And when they've inhaled a few whiffs, they'll want more. They'll crave it. They won't want to quit. They won't be able to quit! Best of all, they'll always associate their hazy pleasure with our products and services."

"Wow! Is this stuff safe?" asks Rep. Jones.

"That's the coup de grace," says the witness. "It's not safe at all. We've pumped this stuff full of 4,000 chemicals, including 60-some carcinogens. It's going to cause asthma, heart disease, cancer, emphysema, you name it. That's going to happen not only to immediate users, but to everyone around them, including our entire work force.

We'll have high turnover, resulting in more jobs for more people. The health care system will thrive. And you can tax the entire process!"

"Sounds like a win-win," says Rep. Doe.

"But tell me," says Rep. O'Toole. "What if the health nuts protest? I hate picket signs outside my office.

"An excellent question—very astute," says the witness. "But we've thought through the perfect talking points for your response."

"I'm all ears," says Rep. O'Toole.

"First of all, you tell them this is a question of individual rights. As a country founded on liberty, Americans love that argument. "Second, play the Big Brother card. Tell them individual business owners—not big government—should decide what kind of Kool-Aid they serve."

"Oh, that's good," says Rep. Smith.

"And finally, ma'am, if the heat gets really intense, tell them it's not the state's job. It's up to individual communities. Then, the health Nazis will have to fight us off town by town, county by county—it'll take years."

"Brilliant!" says the chairman, "And in the meantime, we'll make an absolute killing!"

"Yes, sir, we absolutely will."

I'm sure glad we don't live in a backward state.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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