Why shouldn’t we say what killed Peter Jennings?

Jennings smoked. He died of a smoking-related disease. Isn’t that worth mentioning?

Before the invention of the cigarette-rolling machine by James Bonsack in 1881, lung cancer was an extremely rare disease. The vast majority of those who die of lung cancer die as a result of having been cigarette smokers, just as the vast majority of those who die of cirrhosis of the liver die as the result of heavy drinking.

So it seems natural to me for the obituary of a lung cancer victim to mention the decedent’s smoking status. Not to do so is a little bit like mentioning that someone died as a result of a bullet wound without mentioning who shot him. (Of course, it would be even more newsworthy, by the man-bites-dog rule, if a non-smoker had died of lung cancer.)

I was therefore a little bit surprised (and annoyed) to find that ABC News’s eulogistic obit of Peter Jennings omitted any mention of smoking. But Ann Althouse had the opposite reaction. Finding an obit that recounts Jennings’s having been a smoker who quit for many years, relapsed after 9/11, and quit again, she writes: “If you smoke and die of cancer, every obituary will take advantage of your death as an opportunity to remind the living to quit smoking.”

“Take advantage of your death” sounds ugly, doesn’t it? But where’s the ugliness? If the knowledge of Jennings’s sad example can save a few lives, isn’t that a good thing? ABC posted a sidebar making exactly that point, and Jennings himself mentioned his smoking in the broadcast where he announced his lung-cancer diagnosis.

There is indeed a nasty way of using the circumstances of someone’s death to suggest that he brought it on himself and more or less deserved it: a humorless version of a Darwin Award. (For example, Rush Limbaugh’s reaction when Jerry Garcia died, which was just disgusting then but seems ironically disgusting now.)

But I don’t read the obit Althouse objects to as in any way denigrating Jennings. It reported, briefly and in a nonjudgmental tone, a causally significant fact about his death, which in addition to helping make sense of the story provides a useful and accurate warning about the risks of cigarette smoking.

So what, exactly, is the objection to mentioning precisely why Peter Jennings died too young?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com