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The Thought Police

Marvin R. Shanken, Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

The Thought Police Has George Orwell's Ministry of Truth sprung to life in New Zealand? That nation's public health director, Gillian Durham, informed the country's Cigar Aficionado distributor earlier this year that the magazine violates New Zealand's Smoke Free Environment Act, which bans any promotion of tobacco. If the company continued to send Cigar Aficionado to newsstands, Durham said, it would be subject to a fine of NZ$10,000. Rather than challenge this free-speech threat, the distributor recalled and destroyed all the issues. In another case, using the threat of fines, the health ministry forced a New Zealand weekly to drop its cigar column.  

While the incidents aren't the bookburnings of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, in which squads armed with flamethrowers torched all books discovered in house-to-house searches, the implications are still chilling. The government of New Zealand has essentially decreed that its people will not be allowed to buy or read any publication that portrays tobacco favorably--not because tobacco is illegal, but simply because the government has determined that all tobacco products are a health hazard.   In both instances, there was no recourse. There was no debate. No discussion of any of the Kiwis' constitutional protections regarding free speech. In a debate with Ms. Durham broadcast on New Zealand radio, Cigar Aficionado had the opportunity to tell her that such a thing could never happen in the United States because of America's ingrained principles regarding freedom for all speech. But is that a naive assumption?  

In our last issue, we talked about the incredible incident at the Miami International Airport, where county authorities banned our June special issue on Cuba from newsstands for four days before the mayor of Miami intervened. But there are other signs as well. In Massachusetts, regulations severely restricting cigar advertising have been passed, although their implementation has been delayed. Overseas, the British government has banned all tobacco advertising in the United Kingdom, effective December 1.   These examples all sound frighteningly close to what's going on in New Zealand.  

What we are witnessing in the antitobacco campaigns resembles the Colonial witch hunts of the 1600s. The antismoking zealots allow no discussion. They manipulate science and the facts to suit their preordained conclusions. They dismiss any attempt at reasonable discourse as tantamount to treason. For them there is no middle ground. And any measure to reduce smoking, whether it violates individual rights or not, is valid in their eyes because, to them, tobacco is a greater evil.  

Don't doubt it for a minute. That kind of logic inevitably leads to excess. If the tobacco war tactics are allowed to become established precedent, without legal challenge, other fanatics with other agendas will use the same methods to prohibit things that they oppose. It could be alcohol. It could be coffee. It could be red meat.  

People dismiss those analogies as alarmist. But what's to stop any group from demanding that a product be regulated out of existence, the modern equivalent of Prohibition, in the name of public health? It's been scientifically proven that high-cholesterol diets clog the arteries, leading to heart attacks--and higher health costs for all. Why not reduce cardiovascular disease, hypertension or obesity through intrusive regulations? Why shouldn't McDonald's hamburgers carry warnings in big, black letters that say: Consumption of Red Meat Can Cause Heart Disease. It's not a huge leap of logic.  

Maybe the new world of the Internet will make all efforts at thought and information control completely outdated. But you could just as easily argue that creating the Big Lie and getting it disseminated as truth will be just as easy to accomplish. We say the events in New Zealand can't happen here. But if they did, would you speak out against them? Or would you join the chorus who say, "Well, it's OK, because I'm against smoking, so it's OK to limit access to information about tobacco." 

When the knock comes on your door, whether it's because of your diet, your private behavior, your religion or because of the friends you keep, don't say we didn't warn you.

Marvin R. Shanken Editor & Publisher
Gordon Mott Managing Editor

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