30 years after warning, smoking fight continues

ON POLITICS

January 12, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It's now been 30 years since President Lyndon Johnson's surgeon general, Dr. Luther Terry, released his famous report finding that cigarette smoking was "the chief cause" of such life-imperiling diseases as lung cancer and emphysema and was "associated" with forms of heart disease. And gauging the success or failure of the anti-smoking campaign depends on whether you see the nation's ashtray as half empty or half full.

The current surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, says that 2 million lives have been saved as a result of actions taken since Terry's report. And the federal Office on Smoking and Health says the percentage of smoking Americans has fallen from 52 percent in 1965, the year after the report came out, to 28 percent in 1991.

On the other hand, Wallace Merryman, a vice president of the Tobacco Institute, notes that for all the warnings about smoking's hazards that have been imposed by Congress, "45 to 50 million Americans continue to smoke."

Merryman acknowledges, however, that his side has been thrown onto the defensive to such a degree that it has been obliged to shift the emphasis of its case to a question of the individual's right to make a choice. And in that regard, much of the tobacco industry's sales pitch has focused on generations of would-be smokers, what with the numbers of old smokers diminishing sharply.

The solidarity among past and present federal health-care officials was demonstrated on the Terry report's 30th anniversary in a joint statement from seven past surgeons general calling on Congress to take even stronger measures to curtail or eliminate smoking, which they say causes 420,000 deaths a year, or one in six in this country.

One of them, Dr. Antonia Novello of the Bush administration, calls tobacco "the least regulated consumer product" in the country, with the industry spending $4 billion a year "with reckless abandon" to influence youth and other target groups.

Former President Jimmy Carter has added his voice by calling on President Clinton to boost the current federal tax of 24 cents a pack on cigarettes to as much as $2 -- far more than the 75 cents Clinton has proposed in his health-care reform package.

During Carter's own administration, his health secretary, Joseph Califano, undertook a vigorous anti-smoking campaign with only modest success. Carter, speaking in the tobacco country of North Carolina at the time, gingerly assured his economically affected listeners that Califano's efforts were designated, in a memorable phrase, "to make smoking even safer than it is today."

Since then, there has been much more plain speaking about the smoking habit, and more federal action. The mandatory labeling on cigarette packs and billboard advertising has been the most visible, and legislation is pending in Congress now to prohibit smoking altogether in all public places.

Also, Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey is pushing a "pro-kids" anti-smoking bill that would bar the practice in facilities receiving federal assistance for children's programs, such as Head Start.

Complaints have also continued about the contradiction in the continuation of federal tobacco subsidies while the government seeks to reduce smoking. A revised formula that uses taxes on tobacco farmers and processors to underwrite the subsidy has eased that criticism somewhat, but critics continue to complain that average taxpayers still pay the substantial administrative costs of the subsidy program.

The successful federal efforts to cut smoking in the United States are not likely, however, to threaten the economic viability of the largest American tobacco companies as they move increasingly and aggressively into the export business. Amid more criticism in Congress and elsewhere of the morality of exporting a life-threatening product while striving to reduce its use at home, the tobacco export market is booming, especially into the old Soviet bloc countries where smoking is widespread.

At home, though, the country has come a long way from the days when Lucky Strikes were between millions of lips and the carefree smokers' slogan was, "Be Happy, Go Lucky."

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