Tobacco lobby growing as prime scaremonger



WASHINGTON -- The undisputed champion of scare tactics among political lobbies used to be the National Rifle Association. Its advertising and its propagandists were successful for years using the one-two punch of heavy contributions to members of Congress who opposed gun control and newspaper and television ads distorting what gun control legislation proposed.

The NRA peddled the notion that practically any legislation offered would open the door to the government "taking away your guns" in violation of the Second Amendment's "right to bear arms." The trouble with that pitch was that no bill with the remotest chance of passage ever sought to do that, and that the Second Amendment has repeatedly been interpreted in the courts as protecting the right to keep arms for the purpose of raising "a well-regulated Militia . . . necessary to the security of a free State," not any individual right.

Even so mild a proposal as the Brady bill, requiring a waiting period for the purchase of a handgun to allow a check of the prospective purchaser for any criminal record, was fiercely opposed by the NRA, using the scare tactics and threatening supporters in Congress with defeat if they backed it. But passage of the Brady bill this year indicated that the tactics, and the clout of the NRA, have peaked in effectiveness.

If so, a new champion of scare tactics is ready to take over -- the tobacco industry. For years, ironically, the industry spent millions trying to convince the American public that there was no proven connection between cigarette smoking and serious illness, while accusing anti-smoking forces of scare tactics by exaggerating the risk.

But as the heat builds from the Food and Drug Administration to declare cigarettes a drug requiring federal regulation because of nicotine content, and as the drive for health care reform calls for much higher cigarette taxes, the industry is pulling out all the stops to suggest that the very way of life of Americans is imperiled.

Exhibit A is a full-page ad run this week by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. showing individuals (1) smoking a cigarette, (2) drinking a beer, (3) about to sip some coffee and (4) about to bite into a hamburger. The captions underneath read: (1) "Some politicians want to ban cigarettes." (2) "Will alcohol be next?" (3) "Will caffeine be next?" and (4) "Will high-fat foods be next?"

The ad itself asks: "Today it's cigarettes. Tomorrow?" It says "the Government, through the FDA, the Department of Labor and some congressmen, is attempting to prohibit smoking in America. They're proposing a tax increase of up to 800 percent that will make cigarettes too expensive for people to afford. They're introducing regulations that could lead to a total smoking ban in private as well as public places."

The ad goes on to charge that "their tactics and the end result they are seeking are threats to the freedom we enjoy in our society." If alcohol, caffeine and cholesterol-building products are the next targets, the ad asks, "Will books, movies and music get the treatment? Who knows where it will end?"

In other words, if you let the government regulate cigarette manufacture and raise the taxes on cigarettes to help pay for the huge public medical bills that smoking incurs, across-the-board censorship is just around the corner. The propaganda ploy is obvious. With the tobacco industry losing its fight to maintain and expand its domestic market unimpeded and unregulated, it hopes to change the debate to one of individual rights.

There was a time when the tobacco industry was willing to stake its position on the contention that reports that smoking was harmful were hogwash. Knowing now that it won't fly anymore, it pleads, as in the same ad, for "accommodation, where common courtesy between smokers and non-smokers can prevail" -- sort of live and let live.

But with the hazards of "secondary smoking" gaining more and more public recognition, the anti-smoking forces see the industry's "accommodation" as a formula for die and let die. The Reynolds ad says it is "brought to you in the interest of an informed debate." In its ham-handedness, it succeeds, though obviously not in the way intended.

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