Congress Dickers With Gunslingers for Big Tobacco Hed:

I heard one of those tobacco apparatchiks on TV, threatening us with a black market in cigarettes if the weed is taxed beyond the reach of lungs just dying to suck it in. Visions of Prohibition danced through my head: black cars crossing the borders in the wee hours of the morning, Eliot Ness smashing cartons of Camels, mafia wars erupting in mind-glazing gore on the Chelsea Piers. My knees were knocking. I could see real bodies with real blood oozing out onto our sidewalks, jails packed with tobacco moonshiners growing the stuff in bodegas and dry cleaners. I could see a speakeasy in the back of Zabar’s, behind the cheeses, where somebody has to know your name when you knock on the door and the Marlboro man waits for a tip as you climb out the window one step ahead of the Feds.

They want to shame us, those tobacco industry folk, for our puritan, retrograde big-government instincts. “Live free, inhale and die free” is their motto, and they have a point. You can’t cut out the syndicate and live to tell the tale. I’ve seen the movie. You can prohibit whatever you please, but the little coffin nails will keep right on strutting as long as the urge is out there, and the urge will be out there as long as a new crop of kids puffs away on the playground. So watch the tobacco executives thumb their collective noses at all of us who wish for our children cilia that stand up straight and arteries that suffer from nothing more serious than original sin.

Maybe the tobacco companies can breathe, if not deeply, at least a sigh of relief. Maybe the little mouse guts in the labs will provide us all with a quick shot against lung cancer. In which case, you could buy a pack of cigarettes with the anti-cancer pill packaged in the cellophane. No more lawsuits. No more negotiations. Advertisements on kindergarten walls will raise no eyebrows. Guests at bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs can give cartons of their favorite brand to the newly minted man or woman. Wedding matchbooks with the bride’s and groom’s names embossed in gold will come back in fashion. The phrase “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” will be a little less literal than it is now, and all those shivering types who stand puffing away outside office buildings in the dead of winter can come in from the cold. Restaurants can open a window instead of a smoking section, and airplanes can place an anti-cancer pill on each tray instead of leaving passengers to bite their nails or chew their hair. My friends who still smoke will have the last laugh at those of us who preached and pled to no avail. Look who was right all along. You don’t have to join a gym; you can get your exercise by walking a mile for a Camel.

The downside (there’s always a downside): Just think about the unemployed tobacco lobbyists and the newly clientless tobacco lawyers. Perhaps some of the health care money saved could be set aside (do we believe in set-asides?) to retrain those hangers-on to hang on to somebody else. Of course, over all, taxes will have to be increased, because those no longer dying early of lung cancer and other cancers will use up our Social Security reserves. Demand for eyeglasses, backache therapy and migraine remedies will increase. And then, after nipping at the health care pot for decades, people will still end up in the intensive care units, using up money just as if it grew on trees.

Unless nature, with its amazing ingenuity, creates special for humankind another microscopic enemy, we will soon overpopulate, overrun, this globe. Imagine man with no fear of death from cancer. Will we be gods or demons then? The massacre and genocide rates might take an upward curve as humankind gets grouchier in increasingly limited space. We’ll have to hand out Uzis on demand to all restless adolescents in order to keep up the body count. Without new wars, pestilence and famine, co-op prices will never take a dive, and the generations to come will have to live with their parents and grandparents forever. Those without ancestral homes will have to dig tunnels, giving a whole new meaning to the word suburbia .

The chemical dumpers, the let-the-plutonium-flow people, will also be saved by the bell, or rather by the lab work of dedicated scientists who weren’t necessarily intending to make life easier for the more-toxic-the-merrier crowd. Think on it: The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center can become the next Disney store, and the money that insurance companies pay out for annual mammograms can be redirected toward putting a faux mink coat in every closet, or a Jaguar in every garage.

Of course, I’m running away with myself. They haven’t got the cancer cure yet and while the war Richard Nixon declared on rot has taken a positive turn, who knows what disappointments lay ahead? Life span is unlikely to prove infinitely elastic. If that bothers you, register your complaint with the Almighty: GardenofEden.com. The tobacco guys still have a lot of explaining to do when it comes to Judgment Day.

There is something obscene about the current discussions of money to be paid for lives. The business people want us to pay them to stop selling their poison to our kids, and that seems to me like bald blackmail. I hate the sight of our senators dickering over millions of dollars while the caskets pile up. We are bargaining with terrorists, something we claim we don’t do. If they’ve got a bead on our lives and threaten us if we don’t meet such and such a condition, what are they but corporate terrorists-and the fact that they wear suits and ties instead of ski masks shouldn’t count for much. Would it be all right for members of Congress to raise soft money from the folks who brought us Pan Am Flight 103?

Why are we so afraid of their economic pain and so unafraid of the other dislocations that have affected auto workers, office workers, other corporate employees over the years? If they can’t run with the times and invest in microchips or spaceships or vitamins, then aren’t they deserving of obsolescence? Isn’t that the way our system works?

Let’s not pay them off at all. No deal. The farmers can grow artichokes or take to writing novels. It would probably be economically reasonable to give them funds enough to support four generations of poets on every idle, non-tobacco-growing five-acre farm. Maybe they can all becomes producers of TV shows. The remaining nicotine addicts could be sustained by a small tax on assault rifles. The rest of us could breathe better knowing that the profit has been taken away from the pusher. If the corporate executives don’t know what to do with their days, we could start a workfare program, one that wouldn’t put anyone out of work.

Those executives making deals with our lawmakers-they only look like members of the local Elks. In the real world, they are gunslingers for the international tobacco cartels.