Clearing the smoke: Laws help - but example is even better

If there is any doubt that the cigarette industry is getting edgy about its steady loss of customers and the inroads being made by nonsmoker groups, one need only look at the bizarre argument being made by the Tobacco Institute on behalf of a smoker in Massachusetts.

After a state social worker was successful in getting a Superior Court judge to grant a restraining order banning smoking in her work area, a chain-smoking colleague challenged the decision in a case that is still pending. With funds and legal research provided by the Tobacco Institute, her counsel argued that a person addicted to cigarettes cannot adequately perform on the job without smoking.

Come on, now! Surely the tobacco industry must share responsibility for the ''addiction.''

It has been 20 years since the landmark surgeon general's ''Report on Smoking and Health.'' Since then, thanks in part to vigorous public health and citizen-driven antismoking campaigns, some 33 million Americans, many of them young people, have decided to snuff out their cigarettes permanently.

Keyed to the rights of millions of nonsmokers, litigation and legislation in 35 states have sharply curtailed smoking in public areas as well as in the workplace. Local communities, most recently Cambridge, Mass., are requiring restaurants to set aside seats for nonsmokers. Cigarette advertising on radio and television has now been voluntarily banned by broadcasters. Health-danger warnings are mandated on every cigarette package. National groups, such as Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), have had some success lobbying to restrict smoking in government buildings and on commercial airline flights. And state groups, from New Jersey to California, are busy promoting the ''right'' (perhaps even a constitutional one) to a smoke-free environment.

The nonsmokers' battle is far from won, however. Laws are piecemeal, and court decisions are going both ways. The tobacco industry admits it is hurting financially - but not enough to deter it from staging a costly counterattack to the nonsmokers' thrust. Some estimates indicate it will spend $1 billion this year to promote its products - almost four times what it did in 1964, when the surgeon general delivered what was considered a devastating blow. Further, despite strong opposition, Congress continues to subsidize the tobacco crop to the tune of $15 million annually.

What next? Health warnings and debate over constitutional rights of smokers vs. nonsmokers will doubtless continue. So will a stream of litigation, including attempts to tie the issue to product liability, that is, holding cigarettemakers responsible for goods that could be hazardous to one's safety (causing potential fires) as well as one's health.

But in the end, it's really up to the public. What is needed now is for nonsmoking political and community leaders to set a good example; for positive peer pressures on youth to reject cigarettes; and for more pressure on elective officials to let the tobacco industry fend for itself without government supports.

Some of this is already going on. Politicians, rock stars, sports figures, and movie idols are joining the ranks of nonsmokers and publicly announcing their decisions. A recent Rand Corporation study indicates that peer programs in Canada, and in New York, Minnesota, and Texas, have substantially reduced cigarette smoking among children by proving to them that most young people ''don't smoke, don't want to start, and don't even approve of it.''

A University of Wisconsin study indicates that many members of the younger generation no longer consider smoking to be ''cool.'' Those pictured with cigarettes were ranked ''less sexy, less honest, and less mature'' than the same people shown without cigarettes.

The electronic media are doing an effective job of getting the message out. The press would do well to follow suit. And cable TV in the classroom could be an effective advocate for the ''don't smoke'' message to youth.

But a most effective means is example. The respected teacher, the playground supervisor, the camp counselor - and, most of all, the parent - hold the key to getting the job done.

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