'Working It Out' with the Tobacco Barons

June 28, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Someday we are all going to miss the tobacco companies. I know we are. They just don't make corporate villains like this anymore.

Oh, occasionally an oil company turns a massive spill into a p.r. bonanza. Sometimes a chemical company twists a court-ordered cleanup into proof of good citizenship. But nothing rivals the creativity of the disinformation campaigns that roll out of the tobacco industry faster than a pack of Camels.

Last week, just when everything was going wrong for the tobacco manufacturers, we were treated to newspaper ads that reached dizzying speeds of spin control. In a voice of sweet reasonableness, R.J. Reynolds is publicly pleading for ''dialogue,'' for ''discussion,'' for ''courtesy,'' for ''coexistence'' and even ''accommodation.''

The ads present tobacco executives as peace negotiators in a world fraught with hostile anti-smoking extremists, big government and uncivil non-libertarians. The bottom line of the ads comes straight from a pacifist handbook by way of a marriage counseling manual: ''Together, we can work it out.''

The lion can lie down with the lamb, RJR with the AMA, Brown & Williamson with the FDA. You gotta give them points for nerve.

Americans now know more than ever about how the cancer-causing cohort has manipulated the drug and the research, the government and the public. In congressional hearings the other day, the FDA told us how tobacco companies keep their customers hooked. In turns out that Brown & Williamson, the third-largest domestic cigarette company, didn't just calibrate the dosage of nicotine. They altered the tobacco gene itself, growing plants called Y-1 with twice the hit, to give their low-tar smokers their fix.

That isn't all. Much as I hate to sully any tobacco maker's crafted pose as defender of openness and freedom of choice, a few more facts are in order.

For 30 years, the tobacco companies appear to have known that nicotine was addictive and smoking dangerous. Brown & Williamson, having failed to make a safer cigarette, buried the evidence of danger.

Others, like the RJR manufacturers now in favor of ''open dialogue,''

steadfastly denied -- in and out of court -- that cigarettes cause disease.

The whole cabal fought in Congress against adding health warnings on cigarette packs. They fought in court against accepting any guilt in the death of smokers. They fought in public the accusation that they were advertising to kids.

They fought against smoke-free airplanes, smoke-free restaurants, a smoke-free workplace. They still deny the

evidence of second-hand smoke dangers. They still go on spending $3 billion a year pitching cigarettes. But now they are holding out a peace pipe? What's it filled with? Y-1?

The sudden interest in ''accommodation'' comes because cigarette makers are finally on the losing end of a 30-year war. It appears that the FDA may actually have to treat nicotine as a drug. The Justice Department is going to look into whether company executives lied to Congress and regulators. There are new taxes, new legal strategies, new bans in the works.

So here we go. Health defenders are now portrayed as health vigilantes. The manufacturers of products responsible for 400,000 deaths a year are protectors of openness, peace and the American way. A smoke-free society is portrayed as an unfree society. Warning darkly of the sinister forces of cigarette prohibition, the ads ask, ''Who knows where it will all end?''

Well, I am not in favor of prohibition. If you've seen one smoker in withdrawal, you don't want to see 45 million at the same time. So I am willing to make a deal.

In ''the interests of an informed debate,'' as RJR puts it, the tobacco companies only have to admit that smoking causes lung cancer, emphysema and all the other woes listed on the pack. In lieu of a ban, they give us a full list of cigarette ingredients beginning with A for ammonia. They tell us what they knew about addiction and when they knew it.

Next, they can stop promoting, advertising and generally hooking the next generation of smokers. If they lower the nicotine dose, we'll even stop calling them drug pushers.

Yes, as the ad says: We can work it out.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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