Using My Opinion to Sell a Bad Habit

August 21, 1994|By JOANNE JACOBS

"The smell of cigarette smoke annoys me. But not nearly as much as the government telling me what to do." So says Marta Kramer of Cedar Crest, N.M., in the R. J. Reynolds tobacco company's latest full-page ad.

I helped write this ad.

Earlier this year, I was called by a research firm doing a survey of "opinion leaders." I agreed to answer questions, partly because I have a professional interest in people answering questions, partly because I once had a summer job for a market-research firm and feel sympathy for survey-takers. Also, it's flattering to be called an opinion leader.

After the first few questions, it was clear that the client had to be a tobacco company.

Did I smoke? Did it irritate me when others smoked? Did I believe cigarettes were a health menace? Worse than high-fat diets? Did I believe second-hand smoke was a danger, and how serious? What about workplace regulation? Did I think the government should prohibit cigarettes, or was that a violation of our God-given rights as free Americans?

That sort of thing.

I answered truthfully. I've never smoked voluntarily, and I dislike involuntarily breathing other people's smoke. I think smoking is very dangerous to the smoker, but I'm not sure how bad secondhand smoke is for those who don't have lung problems already. I oppose tobacco prohibition, because it would cause the same havoc as alcohol and drug prohibition.

So Reynolds tailored its ad campaign to me. First, there were pages of ads attacking the validity of second-hand smoking research, and charging that the reporting has been sloppy or political. Then ads shifted to attacking busybody government regulation of a "personal pleasure."

Naturally, the ads slur the difference between federal tobacco prohibition, which nobody is advocating, and local smoking regulation, which is a response to nonsmokers' demands for clean air.

I've recently returned from Europe, where smoking is much more common and more tolerated. They don't have "government resolving the issue for them," as R. J. Reynolds put it. The solution is "accommodation." That means nonsmokers are forced to inhale a lot of smoke. I don't think I'll get cancer, but I did a lot of coughing.

When done in public, smoking is not a private pleasure. It's a public nuisance at best, a public health hazard at worst.

Admittedly, the anti-smoking campaign can be shrill and smug. We pure-lunged Puritans eagerly persecute the embattled remnant of smokers.

Partly, it's the eternal search for someone to blame: The tobacco barons make wonderful villains.

In addition, the anti-smoking campaign represents a rare chance to defend our personal space from outside assault. We can't shut up the boom boxes -- or the BMW alarms. We can't shut our eyes to grunge and grime. But we have a chance to cleanse our air of tobacco smoke.

A different issue was raised this month when nicotine was declared an addictive drug by a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel, echoing a 1988 surgeon general's report.

Unlike the question of smoking in public, the nicotine issue really is about government intervention in personal choices, as the Reynolds ad warns. But is it really a choice to smoke, if once you've started you can't stop?

Actually, it's not impossible to quit smoking (just as it's not impossible to get off heroin), but it's not easy, testified Gary Giovino of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Seventy percent of smokers say they want to quit, according to Mr. Giovino. He estimated that 15.5 million Americans try to quit smoking annually, but only 1.3 million succeed. Most suffer withdrawal symptoms.

The FDA may order a gradual reduction in nicotine content to wean smokers off the substance -- if they can find a non-addictive level of nicotine. Then, in theory, smoking would be a choice for smokers.

Cigarettes won't be banned, like other dangerous, addictive drugs. Too many people smoke.

(It would be nice, of course, if advocates of drug prohibition would explain why they oppose tobacco prohibition, but don't count on it.)

Like the lady in the ad, my doppelganger, I worry about government regulation of private pleasures. As taxpayers pick up more medical bills, there's a public interest in potato chips and couch potatoes, not just in nicotine, liquor or dope. This could get uncomfortably close to my favorite bad habit.

The critical difference is that my bad habits are not inflicted on others. Smoke gets in your eyes. Chocolate doesn't.

Joanne Jacobs is a columnist for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.

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