John Slade, M.D., died on Jan. 29 at a family home on Lake Burton in Rabun County, Ga., from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 52 years old. Six months earlier he suffered a stroke. He was, according to his friend Greg Connolly, a “devout Christian.” Connolly wrote in a eulogy that “When you fight the immoral actions of the tobacco industry you need a moral touchstone to persevere and stay on an ethical path … I am sure John is close with God this evening . . . He changed Ameri~a’s view on tobacco more than any other person I know … In his life he has changed America and saved the lives of many of its citizens.”
John Slade was a hero among contemporary public health crusaders. He was addicted to the war against tobacco. He influenced the Food and Drug Administration’s attempt to regulate the tobacco industry. He helped to redefine cigarettes as “nicotine delivery devices.” And he “disrobed” tobacco executives at shareholder meetings and elsewhere. An epidemiologist by training, he called tobacco advertising and marketing an “infectious agent” and a “virus.”
John Slade was also a hypocrite. He had one set of standards for others and quite a different set of standards for himself: He was a statist towards others and a libertarian toward himself.
Slade chose to end his life quickly, presumably because he did not want to continue living as the victim of a stroke. When it came to himself, he wanted to be left alone. He did not want the power of the state to interfere with his gun use. When it came to others, he enjoyed meddling in their affairs.
He sought to use the power of the state to interfere with their cigarette use. He tried to dictate how smokers live their lives. He sought to interfere with the relationship between cigarette buyers and sellers.
This conflict between his personal values and those he sought to impose on others is striking. Contrast his exercise of free will regarding, to use his own language, a “bullet delivery device” with that of the millions of people who may end up killing themselves with”nicotine delivery devices.”
Smokers choose to smoke for reasons that are important to them. Slade committed suicide for reasons that were important to him. According to Slade, suicide performed quickly is a right. Suicide performed slowly is a sickness caused by an infectious agent, a virus.
John Slade felt compelled to protect people from cigarettes and the tobacco industry. Smokers are, according to Slade, victims of nicotine delivery devices and an immoral corporate empire. Because they have allegedly lost the ability to choose not to smoke due to addiction, Slade believed the state had a right to interfere with their lives. However, by his own reasoning, Slade should have been protected from himself, too: He was not thinking clearly. He was the victim of a bullet delivery device and an immoral corporate empire. Had he lost the ability to choose not to commit suicide? The meaning he found in combating what he considered evil in the world obviously did not give him enough of a reason to continue living. What is a good reason to go on living? What is true for smokers is just as true for John Slade.
Slade believed he had a right to “fatal freedom.” He believed he had a right to end his life·because he no longer wanted to go on living. No one has condemned him for this, and no one should condemn him for committing suicide.
He devoted a significant part of his professional life lobbying for the very opposite kind of policy when it came to others: Smokers, he asserted, do not have the right to exercise free will to self-destruct by smoking. When it came to others, John Slade believed the state had a right to interfere with their lives.