May 31, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON — Washington. - In 1989-1990, which was not a big election year, RJR Nabisco gave $156,430 in unregulated funds to the Republican Party, and about a fifth as much to Democrats. The only business that gave more was Atlantic Richfield. Philip Morris gave $90,000 to Republicans, and just over a third as much to Democrats.

It is not surprising to find that a major oil company and a tobacco-centered conglomerate were the biggest corporate givers to GOP politics. It is not easy to prove that their contributions have anything to do with specific policies of this Republican administration. But that kind of money makes ordinary citizens wonder.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency is currently sitting on a draft scientific report that says second-hand cigarette smoke kills 53,000 non-smoking Americans a year. The EPA and other federal agencies paid for the study, but the agency is treating it like a bastard child.

The man who heads the EPA's indoor-air division says the report has not been approved and may never be approved by the agency. It does not represent the EPA's official conclusions, but the view of the scientists who put it together, he says.

Translated from the language of Washington, that means it could be the most thorough and unbiased study in the history of science, but if it doesn't pass political muster, it will be disowned by the agency that paid for it with taxpayers' money.

Political muster, in this case, means review by the Tobacco Institute, the industry's propaganda arm. Its sole reason for being is to prevent public and private regulation of smoking. For decades, it has fought a rear-guard action against the mounting medical evidence.

The name ''Institute'' was not chosen casually. It lends a scholarly tone to the group's allegedly scientific rebuttals, often from researchers subsidized by the industry.

Although a final draft of the EPA report was ready last month, it has not been released to the public. The EPA official says it is meant for the use of professionals in the indoor air-pollution field. But as a matter of routine, earlier drafts were circulated to the tobacco industry. In response, the industry sent the EPA ''boxloads'' of contradictory material. According to one of the doctors who conducted the study, the only serious objections came from the Tobacco Institute.

Industry opposition focuses on the assertion that of those 53,000 dead Americans each year, 37,000 died of heart disease caused by second-hand smoke. Of course that has to be an estimate, but it is not a guess; it was reviewed in detail by outside researchers and the journal Circulation, published by the American Heart Association.

The study also found that second-hand smoke is a major cause of indoor air pollution, boosting the amount of dangerous substances in the air. An earlier EPA-sponsored draft report said second-hand tobacco smoke killed 3,700 Americans with lung cancer every year, and children of smokers suffer more respiratory problems than those of non-smokers.

About the same time that report became public, Louis Sullivan, the secretary of Health and Human Services, estimated that smoking costs the country more than $52 billion a year, mostly for medical care. That comes to about $221 a year for every man, woman and child, smokers and non-smokers alike.

Dr. Sullivan crusades against smoking by youths, the elderly, everybody -- which may suggest that despite understandable suspicions, the influence of tobacco industry contributions to the GOP is nil. More likely, it proves that he as an individual puts medical ethics above politics. There are occasional exceptions to the rule.

A further test of industry clout will come at the Capitol. There, efforts persist to correct the absurd situation in which the government regulates substances as innocuous as apple sauce and as dangerous as asbestos, but is forbidden by law to control tobacco, a proven carcinogen. There actually is a clause in the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act that exempts tobacco products from EPA regulation.

When legislation to cover tobacco was proposed last year, the industry viewed the prospect smugly -- with what Mark Twain called ''all the confidence of a Christian with four aces.'' Its spokeswoman bragged that even after years of consciousness-raising, most companies still allow workers to smoke on their premises, and most legislative fights are won by industry. Smoking restriction bills make news when they pass, but not when they are defeated, she said.

She also pointed out that despite everything, ''50 million adult Americans still smoke.'' Hers is a biased estimate, but as long as the correct figure is any fraction of that, the tobacco industry will be shoveling money into politics.

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