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Tobacco’s killing us, the government keeps telling us. State and federal negotiators have been working out details of a $368 billion agreement with the major tobacco companies to settle a rash of health-related lawsuits. The Clinton administration says that pact may not be strong enough. The president wants the Food and Drug Administration to regulate cigarettes and their nicotine content.

Just yesterday, for example, the FBI put out a notice on the Internet asking current or past employees of tobacco companies to become whistleblowers in its criminal investigation of the industry. The bureau is investigating allegations that tobacco executives lied to Congress and the FDA about manipulating nicotine levels in their products. Federal prosecutors also are investigating whether companies conspired to hide knowledge about nicotine and tobacco’s dangers and stifled safer cigarettes.

Everywhere you turn, these days, it seems, there’s a growing anti-smoking hysteria — and nowhere are the flames of that hysteria being fanned more forcefully and effectively than in Washington, D.C.

With all that in mind, does it surprise you that the U.S. Senate voted this week to continue $34 million in taxpayer subsidies to tobacco growers? Does this strike you as maybe just a little contradictory? Is the government schizophrenic?

My dictionary defines schizophrenia in the following way: “a major mental disorder of unknown cause typically characterized by a separation between thought processes and the emotions, a distortion of reality accompanied by delusions and hallucinations, a fragmentation of the personality, motor disturbances, bizarre behavior, etc.” That pretty well describes what’s going on in Washington, these days, doesn’t it?

“It is almost impossible to explain why the government is subsidizing the growth of a product that the government tells people is dangerous to consume,” explained Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL. He’s right. It’s “almost” impossible. So let me attempt to do the almost impossible.

If you believe that Bill Clinton or his FDA director or his surgeon general really care about your health, then it’s understandable that you would be confused about these mixed signals emanating from the federal government. The truth is they don’t care. You care about your health. Your family cares about your health. Your friends care about your health. The government doesn’t care. Let’s face it. Even your boss cares more about your health than Bill Clinton does. If more people understood this fundamental concept, they would comprehend why it is so dangerous to allow government to get in the health insurance business — or just about any other business, for that matter.

When you hear someone say, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you,” the best advice I can offer you is to grab your wallet and run as fast as you can. The tobacco debate is no more being driven by compassion than is the health-care debate. It is being driven by a desire for greater federal power and more control over the lives of people.

Once you understand this concept, it’s a lot easier to understand why the government would position itself seemingly on diametrically opposite sides of an issue. Yes, they want to stamp out tobacco use, and, yes, they want to subsidize its growth. It’s about power and control. In Washington, it’s always about power and control.

You see, there’s power in the subsidy, and there’s power in regulation. You can control through the power of the purse just as effectively as you can control through police power.

And that’s why the government subsidizes tobacco, other crops and just about everything else today — from art to mohair and from soup to nuts. Are the vital interests of the people of the United States really at stake in such debates? Is the general welfare of the citizenry the foremost concern, or is it a matter of currying favor with narrow special interests? And what do the power brokers get from passing out such goodies? Power, of course. It’s always about power and control.

So don’t be surprised anymore when you see the government taking both sides of an issue. Its treatment of tobacco is just the most obvious contradiction — but hardly the only one.

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