All Commentary
Saturday, May 1, 1999

CancerScam: Diversion of Federal Cancer Funds to Politics

Government Public Health Spending Should Not Support Political Causes

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Perhaps the most critical chapter of CancerScam, a slim but effective exposé of the politicization of America’s health-care charities, begins with this famous quotation from Thomas Jefferson: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” This statement has properly been used to criticize taxpayer funding of political campaigns, of obscene art, and of various advocacy groups and lobbies.

In CancerScam, economists James Bennett and Thomas DiLorenzo apply Jefferson’s maxim to critique the phenomenon of major health charities, such as the American Cancer Society, using taxpayer money to lobby for laws or ballot initiatives restricting the freedom of tobacco smokers. A case in point was the 1988 passage of a California initiative raising cigarette taxes and using some of the proceeds to subsidize tobacco control, research, and “public education” (read: lobbying) programs run by these very charities.

The American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, and the American Heart Association all spent time and money pushing for approval of the initiative. They were rewarded by receiving at least $8 million a year from the cigarette tax increase to promote anti-tobacco education programs.

Bennett and DiLorenzo quote one journalist sympathetic to the tobacco-control movement, who wrote that the formerly “‘starved for funds’ movement . . . found itself awash in California gold.”

The money-grubbing aspect of the health charities’ involvement was underscored by the legislative history of the initiative. A cigarette tax hike would likely have been passed by the California legislature in 1988, but because of a constitutional spending limit, much of the proceeds from the tax would have had to be refunded to taxpayers. Instead of pushing for the tax hike legislatively—which would have accomplished the anti-smoking activists’ purported goal of raising the price of cigarettes and thus discouraging smoking—the activists pushed for and got a tax hike written into the state constitution. This may have been a bizarre way to raise a tax, but it was the only way to route the new revenues to the charities themselves.

This story is replicated several times as Bennett and DiLorenzo chronicle the growing involvement of anti-smoking health charities in the political process. The book, not surprisingly, spends a fair amount of time rebutting claims made by these anti-smoking forces on such issues as the risks of secondhand smoke, the impact of smoking on government budgets, and how smokers perceive the risks of their habit.

There’s little new here to a reader already familiar with the debate, but it will help other readers put into perspective the pervasive sense of moral rectitude that the anti-smoking zealots exhibit when criticized about their taxpayer-funded lobbying efforts.

Bennett and DiLorenzo don’t focus only on the smoking issue. They argue that the corruption of charitable institutions—their seduction onto the government dole and into the political game—is a trend with far-reaching negative consequences. A free society is based, in part, on drawing clear lines between various social institutions, be they businesses, governments, families, or charities. Governments have a unique role to play in our lives, as do the other institutions. Corruption sets in when businesses act like governments (for example, the Mafia), governments act like businesses (for example, providing rail transportation), governments act like families (for example, giving food stamps and subsidized day care), and so on.

CancerScam tells a cautionary tale. To pervert government public health spending—which in any event should be limited to combating communicable diseases and other immediate threats to innocent bystanders—into a means of supporting political causes is to erase the lines that protect individual liberty and the market process. Jefferson understood this. He would see no justification for forcing anyone to finance campaigns against the right of smokers to do what they want with their own lives and property, and neither do Jim Bennett and Tom DiLorenzo.

  • John Hood is a former president of the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank in North Carolina, and author of The Heroic Enterprise: Business and the Common Good (Free Press).