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Tobacco touts benefits of early death

Until now I never dreamed that the Philip Morris company would hide its cigarette light under a bushel. After all, they've spent hundreds of millions to overhaul the image of Marlboro Man Inc. from corporate outlaw to global citizen. Their Web site boasts a composite of good deeds from the arts to AIDS to the environment, all designed to convince us that they are not the bad old tobacco company. The morph is in the motto: "Things are Changing."

Why, oh why, then do we have to find out from our European friends that America's own Philip Morris has a plan to balance government budgets and save billions on the rising costs of rising life expectancies? The Morris Plan, if I may call it that, is a 2001 equivalent to the Marshall Plan. It promises governments that cigarettes can help lighten the burden of elder costs. How? By shortening lives!

This policy breakthrough comes from the Czech Republic, where Philip Morris has taken over the old state-run tobacco business. It now sells some 80 percent of all Czech smokes. Some folks there have begun to add up the health care costs of tobacco use.

Last March when the Czech prime minister was seen smoking in public, he defended himself, joking that "by smoking, I contribute to the stability of the state budget. By buying cigarettes I increase state revenues and I will die of lung cancer so the state won't have to pay me a pension."

Philip Morris took his morbid humor to the next level. The company actually commissioned a study from Arthur D. Little that shows how the financial benefits of smoking outweigh the costs. Not just by providing jobs and tax income, mind you, but by the "indirect positive effects" of early deaths.

You see. Things are changing. Tobacco companies used to deny that cigarettes killed people. Now they brag about it.

In 1999 alone, the study showed, those "indirect positive effects" shortened lives an average of 4.3 years and saved the Czechs $30-million of reduced costs for pensions and housing and health care for the elderly. Ta Da! There you have the Morris Plan for saving the safety net without bankrupting governments.

There are, of course, naysayers. One British anti-smoking activist called it an "extermination program for the newly retired." Czech public health specialist Eva Kralikova suggested sarcastically that under this reasoning "the best recommendation for the government would be to kill all people at the time of their retirement. It's very effective economically."

But this is just one way in which tobacco companies are, as the Philip Morris company proclaims, "working to make a difference." They have also, for example, developed their own solutions to other problems, like overpopulation.

Just this week a study in the journal Nature Genetics reported that smoking can cause female infertility. There is apparently a direct connection between the chemicals in cigarette smoke and the genetic signals that bring on early menopause. But let's remember those "indirect positive effects."

Somewhere by now there is a consultant counting up the blessings for Third World countries. After all, Europe is worrying about the burden of caring for its elders, but many Asian countries are worrying about population growth. Marlboro Man to the rescue.

Okay, enough black humor. In fact, some of our multinational companies do have a foreign policy of their very own. They not only seem to export the most appalling items Made in America _ from violent movies to cigarettes _ they often push them in ways that are forbidden at home. But none can top tobacco. As Matthew Myers, the head of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says ruefully, we are "spreading our national tragedy" everywhere.

This year, public health figures show that 4-million people will die from tobacco, mostly in developed countries. At the rate it's going, by 2025 annual deaths will grow to 10-million, 70 percent of whom will be in developing nations. "The American public health legacy will be wiped out by tobacco," says Myers. "A nation that committed itself to reducing death and disease worldwide will have a negative contribution solely because of our tobacco companies."

If you are looking for an "indirect positive effect" from this cynical scam, allow me to suggest one. Remember the slogan, "Things are Changing"? Now we know that at Philip Morris, the more they change, the more they stay the same.

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist.

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