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Rex Murphy (Deborah Baic)
Rex Murphy (Deborah Baic)

Rex Murphy

McGuinty's smoking Galahads Add to ...

Dalton McGuinty's Ontario government has followed the dubious lead of some other provinces and U.S. states in announcing that it will be suing Big Tobacco, for the titanic sum of 50 billion dollars.

The announcement came during the almost daily revelations of the stupendous mismanagement of eHealth business, for which Mr. McGuinty's government was most properly lacerated by the province's ombudsman. Among other gems, he noted that the eHealth initiative was raddled with "favouritism" and offered delicious untendered sweetheart contracts, and that there was hardly anything to show for the $1-billion spent.

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I am certain, such is the spotless maiden virtue of Ontario politicians, that the legal jihad against villainous Big Tobacco has nothing to do with the pit the government finds itself in over the eHealth scandal. The tobacco industry, or the tattered, shamed, hectored, circumscribed and shunned remnant of it that still exists, is but a feeble shell of its former self in North America. The ethos on smoking has changed, for the good, irrevocably.

Still, governments lust to pose as knights-errant on a noble quest. So even if the nicotine dragon has lost most of its fire, and its protective scales have long ceased to shield, Mr. McGuinty and his cabinet Galahads can claim the most virtuous of crusades and summon the applause of all right-thinking people. Tobacco has no friends; the cost of opposing its interests is nil. Cost-free virtue, the politician's best investment.

Now, the dubiousness of this high moral posturing is hardly a fresh insight. Back in the day, as the expression has it, governments were as free and easy with tobacco sales as were the companies. They loved the tides of revenue that tobacco hauled in - indeed, still do. And as for the claims now that everyone was ignorant of the harms of tobacco then, that's an insult to the slenderest intelligence. Even in antiquity - that would be the 1950s - people knew. I remember a grandmother of mine warning a swarm of seven-year-olds (reader, I was among that clutch of innocents) about the "filthy habit," that it would "stunt your growth" and lead to an untimely grave. Wise, sweet, sensible dame.

But let that pass. The point is old, its force extinct. What is not old is that even in progressive 2009, in righteous Ontario, there are two other vices, commensurate in their malignant effects, which in contrast to the demonic tobacco industry, get a complete pass. The sale of liquor in Ontario is a bigger gold mine than the fabled El Dorado. But we do not see the booze houses, the bars or even the ever-so-trendy outlets of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario wearing a scarlet "B." We do not see auto accidents in all their gory gloom emblazoned on, say, the arty label of a pert Chardonnay. Liquor destroys individuals, rends families, spawns violence, greases the skids to criminality and is among the most powerful of addictions.

But the revenue from its sale is enormous, so the legions of the virtuous content themselves with a muttered "Drink responsibly." TV ads glorify, in fantasies of sex and good times, the happy weekend with a case of Coors. The wine stores are upscale and oozing with seductive faux-class. And every main brand hard liquor has an advertising budget rivalling the desperate car companies. Yet, the carnage, family dislocation, disease and wasted lives brought on by booze do not get the shadow of the campaign we have seen against smoking.

Then, of course, there is the even more insidious vice of gambling, of which governments of all stripes are the pushers. There are lottery tickets everywhere, administered, let us note, with the same competence that marks the administration of eHealth. The story of the corruption uncovered in the sale of lottery tickets is one already known. But governments feast on the revenues. Every convenience store is a mini-casino.

Video lotteries are a pernicious bane. Gambling destroys thousands of lives and governments are its pimps. They love the cash gambling brings into public coffers intensely more than they deplore the misery that comes in its wake. Governments actively foster and promote the wicked delusion that success is $50 worth of "insta-picks" away, or that the idiot "happy dance" is yours for a handful of tickets.

No $50-billion lawsuits, though. The hypocrisy is miles long and thick.

So let them go ahead with their grandstanding lawsuit against the tattered dragon. It is, at best, a hollow campaign. If the public good were their real or only interest, they would not be conniving and complicit with the parallel miseries arising from gambling and booze. Nor would they be so scrupulously cautious - cowardly actually - in sparing these equivalent vices the public denunciations they have launched with such fever and force against tobacco.

Selective virtue is no virtue at all.

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