To me, Public Citizen is one of the basic “good guy” groups, along with Norman Lear’s People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, Planned Parenthood, Amnesty International — all that. I was a charter member.

But it’s precisely because I think of Public Citizen as being among the good guys that I was troubled by its latest solicitation.

For starters, the address on the envelope has a goofy computer-generated font designed to make me think the it was hand-addressed. And the envelope says: “Registered Document Enclosed,” even though there isn’t, in any meaningful sense, a registered document enclosed.

I don’t find either of these things terrible — all the junk mailers do it, and I guess Public Citizen feels it has to, too. (But why couldn’t the envelope have just been straightforward? “Big Tobacco is buying Congress, and YOU can help stop it! Please open immediately!”)

No, what got me wasn’t their attempt to fool me into thinking this was an important personal letter. And I certainly wasn’t offended by the goal of the mailing — to urge legislators to stop accepting tobacco money.

What got me was this passage:

“[In return for campaign contributions], Congress continues to protect the tobacco industry’s corporate welfare benefits. Did you know that this $60-billion industry is able to deduct the cost of their cigarette advertisements from their taxes? — a subsidy financed through higher taxes on you, me, and every American citizen. That means you’re helping to pay for all those ‘Joe Camel’ ads aimed at kids.”

Now, please. This is such blatant demagoguery. It suggests that tobacco advertising somehow gets a break other advertising doesn’t. But of course ANY advertising to sell ANY product is considered a deductible business expense. It doesn’t matter whether it’s tobacco, toothpaste, or machine tools.

To suggest that it’s a “subsidy” to allow businesses to deduct costs before figuring profits displays a fundamental misunderstanding of economics — or, more likely, I fear, a callous disregard for honest discourse.

I’ve long advocated that all tobacco advertising be banned. I can make a good case for that, my ACLU membership notwithstanding. And I’d be happy to see, as a modest step in that direction, a law that did single out tobacco advertising and keep it from being counted in figuring a company’s taxable profits.

But this letter didn’t make those cases. Instead, it served to mislead the average recipient. Demagoguery shouldn’t be a Public Citizen tactic.

The irony is that Public Citizen’s founder, Ralph Nader, who remains very much its guiding light, is running for president against the first president in the history of the United States who has taken a tough stand against the tobacco industry.

Obviously, he has no chance of winning. And right now, it looks as if he’ll have no impact whatever. But when Nader first declared his candidacy, there was the slim but real prospect he could tip California — and thus the entire election — to Dole. If something truly unexpected happened between now and Election Day to narrow the race, he still might. In that case, inasmuch as Dole is a friend of Big Tobacco and Clinton is its worst nightmare, Public Citizen founder Ralph Nader would prove to have been (unintentionally, to be sure) the best friend Big Tobacco ever had.

Tomorrow: Jack Benny’s Life Insurance

 

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