Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Corporate Morals

I don't have a witty introduction to this week's topic. It's not that I couldn't think of one (though it would be tough at this point in the morning since the caffeine hasn't yet circulated through my bloodstream). The topic, however, needs to be discussed in stark contrast to my usual lighthearted modus operandi.

A few days ago, it was reported that the top 4 cigarette makers (representing a 90% stake of the market) have been trying to "backdoor" their way out of paying penalties on past profits because of their knowledge of nicotine addiction, complicity in its marketing, and downright conspiracy to addict the general public to a product they control so that they can continue to reap the financial benefits.

We're not talking about a few dollars here. In the article, the numbers that were bandied about were $280 billion of the past profits plus an addition $14 billion to run a campaign to help people quit smoking. This isn't chump change as you know - in fact, this is a substantial percentage of the $1 trillion budget / deficit / robbing of our children that you've heard so much about over the past few months. So while it is understandable that R. J. Reynolds, Phillip Morris, etc. want to protect their financial positions, it is my opinion that you have no such right when you are in the business of robbing the public of something far more precious than their material possessions: their health and longevity.

I am the only person in my immediate family that doesn't smoke. As a young, curious boy at age 6, I asked my mother one night why she smoked. She said that she couldn't stop and, curiosity full engaged, I asked if it was because of the taste. She answered that it wasn't that either and, knowing I wouldn't stop, she told me to take a drag because I couldn't comprehend the concept of addiction or why someone would do something they didn't enjoy. That one puff along with the obligatory huffing, puffing, coughing and sputtering traumatized me to the point that I've never, ever wanted to touch a cigarette.

My younger brother wasn't so lucky. I caught him smoking (by finding the leftover butts hidden under my nightstand) at the age of 12. I don't know how long he had been smoking already, but 12 is too young in my opinion.

My mother still smokes. My father wants to quit, but can't because the addiction has him in its clutches so every time he tries and my mother starts sneaking cigarette breaks he can tell and it wracks his psyche to the point that he has to start again.

While I am happy to say that my brother, several years ago, quit cold turkey and hasn't smoked since (it's easier when you don't have people around you who are still smoking), my mother continues trying to quit but fails due to a lack of willpower. It kills me, too, because now she's developing emphysema on top of the other medical issues she's experienced on an ongoing basis for the past 20 years: acute fibromyalgia; two cases of bacterial meningitis; cancer; several mini strokes and heart attacks; etc. For once, I wish she could just catch a break.

So to read about companies who, in the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, have raped us of our ability to control one very big aspect of our own health complain that they are getting the short end of the stick financially, it is upsetting. My mother's life has been shortened by several years because of the addiction you forced upon her, Mr. Phillip Morris. Are you going to pay the bill for the oxygen tanks that she will soon need, Mr. R. J. Reynolds?

The irony in all of this is that I could easily replace "cigarettes" with "oil" or "nicotine" with "groceries" and we'd have essentially the same story (albeit without the health issues associated with nicotine addiction). This singular control over a necessary resource (hydraulic despotism for those of you keeping score at home) or the ability for a tightly knit group of companies to generate the necessity for a single resource (i.e. tobacco) goes strictly against the anti-trust concepts regardless of whether they are a cartel, an oligopoly, a monopoly, etc.

And while I'm not a huge fan of government regulation when it comes to capitalism, the need to "stay out" is predicated on the trust that we have in companies to act with morals, ethics, and a general compassion toward their fellow humans. When that criteria is not met then the governments obligation to stay out of their business also gets removed from the mix.

See you next week.

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