Tobacco, government, and the Reagan team

Human beings have enough challenge in avoiding the use of harmful, habit-forming drugs without their governments taking a neutral or encouraging attitude toward such practices.That is why it was good to hear some months ago that China was conducting its first national antismoking campaign -- with a large number of people reportedly giving up smoking. And that is why it was not good to hear John Block this week come to the defense of tobacco in one of his first public appearances since becoming President-elect Reagan's nominee for secretary of agriculture. He not only favored continued federal support of tobacco growers but saw little backing for a continuation of the federal antismoking effort under the Reagan administration.

Of course, President Carter, too, has favored federal tobacco support, and he has failed to back strong federal antismoking efforts. It was no secret in Washington that Joseph Califano's departure from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was due in part to his zealous antismoking campaign. Mr. Carter, is was said, saw Mr. Califano becoming a political liability in tobacco-growing states such as North Carolina.

It was in North Carolina that Mr. Block made his remarks after Sen. Jesse Helms had told farmers the new Department of Agriculture would be for them rather than for consumers. But surely, whatever adjustments are found necessary to meet farmers' legitimate needs, it is mistaken to assume that this must pit them against consumers, who constitute their market and whom they have served so well over the years.

In the case of tobacco, the interests of the general public -- whether labeled consumers or not -- are particularly seen to be at odds with those who grow and market it. The public interest must not be one segment of blatant political appeal to one segment of it.

Not that the taxpayer support of tobacco growers required under government price-support loans is anything but minor in comparison with commodity support in general over the years. Since the beginning in 1933, according to the Department of Agriculture, government losses on tobacco alone have amounted to something over $57 million, possibly one-thousandth of total losses on commodity loans. One argument made is that, without guaranteed prices, the nation's $250, 000 tobacco growers would be at what might be called, in effect, the monopolistic mercy of the world's seven major tobacco companies.

But can even -- even? -- $57 million and whatever future losses there are be justified as governmental expenditures on a substance which that same government has found to be damaging to the public the government is supposed to represent?

Earlier this year the head of the World Health Organization called on all nations to combat smoking as probably the greatest preventable cause of ill health in the world.

Now, in a year-end report, the US surgeon general has renewed his warnings about the health hazards of cigarettes, whatever their supposed tar and nicotine contents, and asked for nore not less government help against smoking. He suggested such promising ideas as "deglamorizing" cigarette advertising ideas banning the distribution of cigarette samples to minors.

The Reagan administration ought not to abandon government efforts against smoking but rather seek ways to increase their effectiveness. One way might be to take a hint from both China and Canada, where there is concern about health but also an apparent realization of the limits to health-scare tactics. An alternative to the latter is to exemplify notm smoking with admired figures of achievement -- in contrast with the egregious commercial association of smoking with achievement. In China provincial commune cadres set an example of giving up smoking, and a large number of commune members followed suit. In Canada a successful antismoking organizations suggests that young people may be impressed more by the example of a school athlete not smoking than by repeated health warnings.

And, of course, there remains the central influence of examples of not smoking set in the home -- examples that can be reinforced by a new administrations showing that it does not intend to tacitly or otherwise endorse an acknowledged bad habit.

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