Please don't inhale

Anna Quindlen

February 04, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

THE mental picture is riveting: While a four-star fete goes on within, a senator, an ambassador or a captain of industry huddles in a doorway of the White House, cold and disgusted.

He or she is losing valuable ear time with movers and shakers, has issed a chance to confab with the president, and has gone head-to-head with the president's wife. And all because of the need for a smoke.

Since Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would ban smoking in the White House, there has been this irresistible image of people in evening clothes doing what smokers have learned to do in recent years -- go outdoors, as though they were unruly pets. Or Secret Service agents wrestling a lighted cigarette to the ground. Or alliances unraveling as frazzled envoys from heavy-smoking nations try to get through dinner without nicotine.

It may be the president's infamous allergies. It may be that his wife does not like her home to smell as though there has been a fire in the basement. Or it may be that Mrs. Clinton knows that, since Jan. 7, the arguments against public tobacco use have become considerably more powerful than either aesthetics or annoyance.

That was the day the Environmental Protection Agency released a blistering report on secondhand smoke that classified it as a Group A carcinogen, as dangerous as benzene, arsenic and radon. The report noted that 3,000 non-smokers die each year from secondhand-smoke lung cancer, and that smoking poses special risks to the captive audience of children.

(I have to stop here for the warning label on this column: The tobacco industry wants you to know that all of this is poor science and political hysteria. And if its executives don't want people to smoke around their children, you shouldn't draw any wild conclusions from it.)

The evolution of attitudes toward smoking in this country has been rapid and constant. In 1964, when the first Surgeon General's report linked lung cancer and smoking, more than 40 percent of all American adults smoked and could do so nearly everywhere except in an oxygen tent; today the number is one in four, and smoking is banned in many offices, theaters and restaurants. In the land of the free and the home of the Marlboro man, public disapproval and restrictions have come a long way.

No one talks much about an outright ban on cigarettes for reasons ranging from the pragmatic to the political. We know from our experience with alcohol and drugs that a ban works poorly and leads inevitably to a contraband market.

We also know that there is scarcely a lobby in this country as rich and powerful as the tobacco lobby. After Mrs. Clinton clears the White House of secondhand smoke, it would be grand if she would get rid of secondhand smoking money, which is given in huge amounts to both political parties and flows through to national campaigns.

Making smoking expensive and uncomfortable has become a useful way to deal with a health risk in an open society. Noting that $2.6 billion was spent on health-care costs related to smoking in New York state, Gov. Mario Cuomo has proposed raising the cigarette tax steeply.

The members of Congress who wrote the blessed legislation banning smoking on domestic airline flights have moved on to banning smoking in places that provide federally financed services for children.

But the EPA report gives us issues to think about that are more difficult than keeping smokers in one corner of a restaurant. If a mother was found to be putting a bit of benzene in baby's bottle, baby might wind up in a foster home.

But many babies live day after day surrounded by cigarette smoke and, according to health experts, at increased risk of asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and ear infections. C. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General and ubiquitous tobacco nemesis, likens smoking around kids to child abuse.

Advocates for smokers like to talk about choice, a word that has become the clarion call for everything from abortion to schools. But one thing the secondhand smoke report made manifest is that parents who smoke are making a life-threatening choice, not just for themselves but for their kids. And that the risks of smoking may be contagious.

You choose; we cough. A White House smoking ban is an obvious corollary to what we now know about cigarette smoking and what we all ought to do about it. And besides, the drapes won't smell.

Anna Quindlen is a New York Times columnist.

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