Clearing the Air Coughing Up Deniability

April 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

In 2001, the Czech Republic, which formerly was the opening act of Czech & Slovakia, considered an increase on its cigarette tax. This was a keen threat to Philip Morris, which worried that higher taxes would hurt its business in the Czech Republic. So, the company commissioned an organization called Arthur D. Little to study the situation.

The Little organization came back with its report, taking an original and unique position. Rather than only pointing out all of the downsides of an increased tax and thus, no doubt, fewer cigarettes sold, Little also showed all the benefits if Czechs smoked lots and lots of cigarettes and, no kidding, died prematurely.

The study, complete with charts, was so detailed that it contained the pluses and minuses down to the dollar — or whatever they spend there, zlotys or beaver pelts, I suppose. In U.S. dollars, the minuses included the costs of smokers’ related heath care ($296 million) and work days missed ($3 million). Even the cost of fires caused by cigarettes was counted ($1,265,000).

And then the study gave reasons why there should be no tax increase: The Czech taxes and custom duties on cigarettes were huge even without the increase. There was health care savings due to early mortality ($25 million). Unspent pensions and social security because their citizens croaked at an early age ($5 million). Savings on housing for the elderly ($723,000). The difference in expenses and savings came to a neat $150 million, or $1,227 per cancelled Czech. As anyone could see, there were many benefits for the Czech government if its citizens continued their three-pack-a-day habit.

I remembered this information because it rang a bell when I read recently that several Houston business typhoons, companies and petrochemical organizations were opposed to any ordinance passed by the Houston City Council, however tentative, towards cleaning up the air.

The opponents’ gas roots movement was triggered when Mayor Bill White, the first city leader in memory to attempt to do something about our air pollution, asked City Council to approve suing polluters, which is about the only effort a city can do, and Lord knows the feds and the state aren’t doing a thing to help. The mayor’s idea met with overwhelming ennui. Councilman M.J. Khan protested, “Isn’t it that we are really in some uncharted territory with the city of Houston taking the lead in the entire country in keeping the air clean?” God forbid! Councilman Khan later said he was for the ordinance.

But others do get their snout in the Stomach Turning Basin. We all know the drill by now, since it is trotted out every time any attempt is made to clean up our air. The scenario starts like this: “Any controls on our smokestacks will hurt our business climate.” The fact that our business climate contains smoke, chemicals, carcinogens and isobutene among other death-causing yuck, and that one reason Toyota put its new multi-billion dollar plant in San Antonio rather than in Houston was because of our dirty air, was not mentioned. But we do have an image problem.

That message delivered; next, the Friends of Smog mount their usual campaign. They first organize, raise money, then they foot-drag until interest is worn down. They demand public hearings. Next we have, “This matter needs to be studied.” There is probably a branch of the Houston Public Library System given over to studies on our town’s air pollution and mass transit. A spokesman for FOS demands, “We need a blue ribbon committee to look into this and issue a report.” (See: “studies” above).

The very slight chance that the city can/will actually take action causes guerrilla warfare in which the new clean-up orders are fought in court, delays are routine, attempts are made to water down the toothless rules and, if all else fails, threaten to move. Hey, it worked for our pro sports teams. When the smoke clears — OK, a bad choice of words — absolutely nothing has changed. If you doubt this, go downwind from Manchester and take a deep breath.

Houstonians like to say they don’t want to breathe anything they can’t see. Our skies are, so to speak, air apparent. And our children have a little nursery rhyme, “I shot an arrow into the air. It stuck.” Yes, I know. Recent studies both locally, nationally and globally show clearly that breathing dirty air can be hazardous to our health. Today we can go into any grocery store and see a full aisle of bottled water. Our children will be going to those same stores to buy bottled air. Be careful not to get in a car wreck on Navigation Boulevard. The airbags filled there will be solid as concrete.

So FOS has quite a propaganda battle in store. Still, the bottom line is the top dollar. Instead of the usual whining and the shop-worn campaigns about bad-fer-bidness, Friends of Smog should simply hire the Arthur D. Little company and give them the same marching orders as did Philip Morris: put a positive spin on Killer Air.

Paying for the brainstorming should be no problem. Last year, Exxon Mobil, which has that big refinery in Baytown, broke its own record of $36.1 billion in profits by posting $39.5 billion. As the most profit any U.S. company has ever made, Exxon Mobil surpassed Microsoft and Wal-Mart. So, FOS puts out full-page ads noting the huge expenses required by taxpayers to take care of lung patients year after costly year. To make this argument sound better, throw in some statistics. “It costs the average Houston taxpayer $3,209 a year to take care of one person in ICU with black lung disease.” Just make up the stats. Who can argue?

Get hired temps to call in to our local talk shows. “I am so tired of these deadbeats running up hospital bills for their coughing kids.”

“You’ve got a point, caller. And we’ve got to stop the guberment from telling us what to do. It’s communistic. If I want to stink up Deer Park, that’s my bidness.”

We should see TV commercials showing stacks of social security checks and pension plan folders, then cut to the hall of a nursing home. Voice over: “Money spent by the millions, lengthy and expensive stays in God’s waiting room, an overcrowded planet with finite resources. Tell your council member that it’s not pollution control, it’s population control.”

Oh, as for the Czech program to show all the benefits of early deaths, when the story got out, Philip Morris said its executives knew nothing about anything. The Friends of Smog can do the same thing. In the CIA it’s called “plausible deniability.” Others may call it “a Prague on both your houses.”

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