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McClellan: Government should let us eat, drink, smoke and be merry

Woman smokes outside California coffee shop

FILE - In a June 11, 2007 file photo, Helen Heinlo smokes outside of a coffee shop in Belmont, Calif. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

President Barack Obama is about to present a budget that will curb the growth of Social Security benefits by changing the methodology used to measure inflation, which, in turn, is used to calculate annual cost of living adjustments. His proposed budget would also increase taxes on tobacco products.

Hasn’t anybody ever heard of cause and effect? Leave the smokers alone.

When Social Security was signed into law in 1935, the life expectancy for a male in this country was 59.9. For a woman, it was 63.9.

It is not hard to design a retirement program when most people don’t live long enough to retire.

I am not pretending that it was easy to get Social Security through Congress. Opponents called it socialism. They said it would cost jobs, that employers would not be willing to fund it. It was challenged in the courts.

But that is politics. I am talking about economics. In an economic sense, it is easy to design a retirement program into which everybody pays but few people collect.

In 2010, the life expectancy for a male in this country was 76.2. For a woman, it was 81.1

Longevity is not a friend of Social Security.

For that matter, longevity is not a friend of Medicare. The older we get, the more medical problems we have. There is no way around that. Our bodies wear out. I have some older friends whose hobby is going to specialists.

With that in mind, you’d think the government, at the very least, would take a hands-off approach to longevity. If a citizen wants to live a long life, fine. If not, that should be fine, too.

Instead, the government has become a scold. Consider the push from the Food and Drug Administration to require fast-food chains to list calorie counts on menus. Is the purpose to shame those of us who like an occasional Big Mac?

New York City has become almost unlivable for people who want to eat, drink and be merry. That city has required menu labeling since 2008. Recently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided New Yorkers ought not be allowed to have supersized soft drinks. The city’s Board of Health tried to ban soft drinks larger than 16 ounces, although a judge has blocked the move.

I understand that water is healthier than a soft drink. Whole wheat bread is better than white bread. A carrot stick is healthier than a doughnut. And so on and so forth. We all know this stuff. But if somebody wants to opt for enjoyment over longevity, the government ought to leave that person alone.

Cigarettes are particularly unhealthy. In fact, you couldn’t invent a better anti-longevity product. They don’t kill a person right away. They’re highly addictive. By the time you feel the unwelcome long-term effects of smoking, you’re hooked.

But what should the government’s role be?

Long ago, it was necessary to require warning labels. That’s because there was a time when people didn’t know how injurious cigarettes were. Doctors, athletes and entertainers used to endorse cigarettes. One infamous ad claimed, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”

Politicians, too. Sen. Charles Curtis of Kansas endorsed Lucky Strikes before he became Herbert Hoover’s vice president. He and Hoover were beaten, of course, by the cigarette-smoking Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Back then, people ate, drank and smoked what they wanted.

Maybe people weren’t as uptight then. Certainly, they weren’t as judgmental about other people’s habits.

These days, people seem to enjoy looking down on smokers and overweight people. Maybe that’s because they’re the last people we are allowed to look down on. It’s as if the civil rights tsunami washed over everybody but them.

Some people make the argument that other people’s poor health choices impact us all. That’s because their illnesses are expensive and society, in one way or another, shares the costs. That would be a better argument if people lived to a certain age and then just died. But elderly people get ill, too. If you live a healthy lifestyle and stay away from unhealthy things, you will just get ill later.

And good for you. Good for us, I should say. Certainly, I hope to get ill later rather than sooner.

But that should be a personal choice. The government ought to stay out of it.

In fact, the sensible thing for the government to do would be to encourage people to have a good time. Enjoy life. It will seem short enough no matter what you do. Eat what you want. If that doughnut looks good, have it. Eat, drink, smoke and be merry. Or some of the above. Or not. It’s up to you.

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