Light-Up Time

March 19, 1994|By HAL PIPER

They can ban smoking in the Pentagon and at McDonald's and in the very building tenanted by the tobacco lobby. They can ban smoking in all the restaurants and all the bars of Maryland.

They can drive the wretched, coughing addicts out onto the streets to practice their filthy vice in rainswept doorways and dank, fetid alleys. They can brandish studies about the early, certain and ghastly deaths faced by smokers.

They can tax coffin nails at $2 a pack or -- why not? -- $2 apiece.

They can hang Joe Camel from a sour apple tree.

And you know what? Cigarette smoking among teen-agers, already rising, is about to skyrocket.

''Reality Bites'' is the new movie about the anguish of being twentysomething. After college, it turns out, your geeky parents shut off the money spigot and you have to get a job! Oh man, do I empathize! That happened to my generation, too, and it was downright unsettling.

But why are high school kids fascinated by ''Reality Bites?'' True, they can relate to having geeks for parents, but the money spigot still flows for them; they don't have to get jobs.

One clue is the uncanny fidelity with which the 23-year-old screenwriter Helen Childress has reproduced the cadence, the inflection, the attitude of youthful speech. I had to keep sneaking sidelong glances to be sure that my 14-year-old daughter was with me and not up on the screen. She told me later that even though the characters' lives and problems were not her life and problems, it seemed like her movie be cause no other movie ever sounded like life instead of a script.

Hence my prediction of a new teen-age smoking binge. Not in years has there been so much, and such beautiful, smoking on the silver screen. Lusty, passionate smoking. Deep, soulful smoking. Solitary, despairing smoking. Vivacious, social smoking. Lazy, reflective smoking. Quiet, companiable smoking.

And such lovely smokers, and such a happy ending. (No, they don't get jobs, but they get each other. That sometimes happened in my generation, too; it makes up for a lot.) Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke are the Bacall and Bogart, the Bette Davis and Paul Henried, the Nora and Nick Charles of their age -- memorable screen smokers all.

One furious puff from the intense Winona's enticing lips, one wispy smoke-ring hooding the profound Ethan's poetic eyes, overcomes a thousand pages of surgeon general's prose. It obliterates the Food and Drug Administrator's threat to regulate tobacco as an addictive drug. It stymies the earnest efforts of legislators, social activists, classroom health teachers.

And, of course, it crowns all the unsavory machinations of Gucci-shod tobacco lobbyists carrying eelskin attache cases. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the Tobacco Institute bankrolled ''Reality Bites.''

So much for education. If the truth shall make you free, we Americans invest a lot of faith in education to overcome race prejudice, stop AIDS, slow down motorists, reduce cholesterol and promote virtue.

Education does these things imperfectly, if at all. It's hard to educate the cussedness out of human beings. Education has reduced overall cigarette consumption, and most folks now faithfully wear automobile seat belts. But people seem to be swinging back to sugared colas and real butter. AIDS educators despair at the persistence of high-risk behavior among people who should know better. And cigarette smoking is rising among the young.

The fruits of seat-belt education are probably won forever because seat belts aren't a matter of self-expression and lifestyle choice. But most human behaviors are not controlled by rational on and off switches. We choose them to reveal ourselves; we won't easily give them up just because some expert disapproves. Sometimes, in fact, public obloquy is the payoff. See, I'm untamed, Mephistophelian, dangerous but fascinating.

And I'm beautiful, like Winona, and a lover, like Ethan. They are so cool, and I am so cool. They talk just like me, and I smoke just like them. (And nobody ever coughs.)

Humphrey Bogart died at 54 of throat cancer, probably caused by cigarettes. A pity, but maybe it was worth it to have been Bogart. There's more to life than longevity.

As for me, I kicked the habit 25 years ago, sometime after I lost interest in being like Steve McQueen. Anyway, I had a job and a wife. Reality bites in its own season. Most of those hooked by Winona and Ethan will feel reality's nip eventually and join the ranks of the anti-smoking crusaders.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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