Tobacco: a sad irony

IT is a decades-old paradox. With one hand Uncle Sam tries to discourage the use of tobacco. But with the other he encourages the growing of tobacco by lending money to tobacco farmers.

Congress is now poised to require the stiffest-ever warnings on cigarette packs: It may act within two weeks.

Annually for the past 20 years the US surgeon general has published a report on smoking and health; the newest report is due this week. The original, 1964 report played a major role in beginning the long decline in per capita cigarette smoking in the United States, which continues.

In advance of this year's document Surgeon General C.Everett Koop says the US should aim to be a ''smoke-free society'' by the year 2000. Smoking, he said, ''is becoming socially unacceptable.''

At the same time tobacco farmers hold approximately $2 billion in outstanding loans from the federal government for the growing of tobacco. The government instead should spend the money helping tobacco farmers adapt to growing some useful crop.

The reason the federal tobacco support program continues year after year is simple: politics. The strength of the congressional delegations from tobacco growing and processing states in the Southeastern US is much greater than their numbers, in part through alliances with other members of Congress to support one another's pet projects. Over the years, as a consequence, some members in Congress who have strongly supported stiffer warnings on cigarette packs have also voted to continue the tobacco support program.

Also, national political candidates do not wish to offend voters in tobacco-raising states.

It is time for government to be consistent. It should end the loan program that encourages the growing of the very tobacco it is warning Americans not to use.

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