WASHINGTON — Washington. -- When your mother dips Garrett snuff, your father chews any available brand of tobacco and your uncles puff on roll-your-own Bull Durham, you learn as a boy what a disgustingly filthy product tobacco is.
Then you find that you're personally allergic to smoke, and you read how many people tobacco kills, and you develop an almost indelible contempt for the people who push it -- especially on children.
So you are surprised and pleased that President Clinton, who once seemed terribly timid, has shown guts (and written off the electoral votes of most of the South) by authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to take drastic steps to stop the tobacco industry from peddling cigarettes to teen-agers.
I hope the anti-smoking campaign succeeds.
Well, why am I raising questions about the legality and the fairness of some of the proposed FDA restrictions on tobacco advertising? Why does it bother me that government may ban naming sports events the Winston Cup (NASCAR racing), the Virginia Slims Legends Tour (tennis and performances by musical artists), the Copenhagen Skoal Pro Rodeo or the Vantage Golf Tournament?
Why? Because there are some vital free-speech issues involved, as well as questions about the powers of a president or a federal agency to willy-nilly dictate how an industry can advertise in any medium.
However much I hate smoking -- and dipping and chewing -- I think I hate even more giving the Food and Drug Administration )) the freedom to control or eliminate advertising by a legitimate industry that sells products that not only are legal but also are grown with the support of federal funds.
Some practices of the tobacco industry are patently reprehensible, such as sharpening the nicotine hook for new smokers. The industry is shameful in its denials that nicotine is addictive and that there is no ''proof'' that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer. But even bad guys have basic rights in America.
So can the FDA force the tobacco industry to run only black-and-white text ads -- or ''lousy,'' ineffective ads, to put it plainly -- in such magazines as TV Guide and Sports Illustrated? Can it ban the sale by any store of hats and T-shirts that promote tobacco products? Can the FDA require tobacco companies to pay $150 million for advertising campaigns that discourage teen-age smoking but which basically disparage their products?
RTC All these issues are before the courts. But the initial reaction of this smoke-hating columnist is that the government's proposed programs go too far. We dare not give the FDA or any government agency such sweeping powers to limit free speech, commercial or otherwise.
Yes, I am aware of legal opinions that if nicotine is a drug then the FDA can claim power to restrict ads for cigarettes, and eventually their use by people of any age. I know that the U.S. Supreme Court has permitted certain ads to be banned because of a compelling government interest. I know that in 1968 the Supreme Court upheld the authority of the Federal Communications Commission to require radio and TV stations that ran cigarette ads to also run anti-smoking messages, and that courts have upheld the 1971 ban on TV advertising of tobacco products.
Still, there remains a question in my mind as to whether the proposed FDA prohibitions are too broad to pass First Amendment muster.
We would all be better off if the FDA slowed down, the tobacco industry walked from the courts to the arena of public responsibility and all parties negotiated an agreement to protect our children from the curse of snuff, the chewing stuff and deadly cigarettes.
The tragedy is that with billions of dollars at stake such an agreement seems impossible.
8, Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.