Washington — The tobacco industry in the United States is under attack as never before. The assault is occurring on several fronts: in the workplace, in the military, and even on the college campus. The battle is clearly shifting in favor of antismoking activists, who after a 20-year struggle find themselves winning skirmishes at an ever-faster rate. ``We are seeing fantastic change very quickly now,'' says Regina Carlson, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of GASP, an antismoking organization. She reels off the names of several New Jersey companies that in recent months have restricted smoking in the workplace.
GASP is just one of several private groups seeking to make nonsmoking the norm and smoking the exception, after years in which society generally accepted the reverse. And US Surgeon General C. Edward Koop says his goal is for a smoking-free America by the year 2000.
The US Army last month announced a ban on smoking in military buildings except in specific areas. This is the reverse of the Army's previous policy, under which smoking was generally permitted anywhere other than in a few specific nonsmoking areas. An increasing number of businesses and governments at various levels are also taking this new approach.
Nationwide the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped substantially.
In 1965 slightly more than half the adult men smoked. In 1983, the last year for which figures are available, the figure had declined to about one-third. Although the drop has been less pronounced for women, who in recent years have been the special targets of tobacco marketing, it has nonetheless been significant.
Judging from an annual survey of high school seniors, there has also been a drop in teen smoking. In 1975, 26.8 percent of high school seniors smoked; in 1984 only 18.7 percent of that group said they smoked daily.
Among high school seniors, however, there is a marked contrast in smoking habits between boys and girls. Nearly 5 percent more high school girls smoke regularly than do boys.
John Slade, vice-president of the New Jersey chapter of GASP, says the difference between boys and girls corresponds ``pretty well to the promotion of all those women's liberation cigarettes'' like Virginia Slims and Eve. ``The cigarette is offered [to girls] as a way into the man's world,'' Dr. Slade adds, noting that smoking often has been equated with masculinity. ``Cigarette promotions to girls are saying, `You can get equality of the sexes by smoking.' ''
Experts say several elements have combined to bring about the overall smoking decline: concern over health effects that physicians ascribe to the use of tobacco, nonsmokers' assertiveness in claiming their right to smoke-free air, and a dramatic change in the social climate toward smoking. Says Ms. Carlson of GASP, ``Our society is getting more savvy in its approach toward our most dangerous, and socially acceptable, drugs -- alcohol and tobacco.''
As tobacco use decreases, efforts to trim it still further increase.
In the past five years nearly one-third of all American businesses have restricted smoking on the job, according to a survey released this week by the Bureau of National Affairs and the American Society for Personnel Administration. Another 21 percent are considering establishing policies on smoking.
In a dramatic example of the turnaround in business attitudes toward smoking, three years ago a large New Jersey firm fired an employee rather than give in to her demand for a smoke-free working environment. Today that same firm bans smoking except in one lounge.
The University of Chicago, concerned that many students take up smoking in college, announced this week that the sale of cigarettes on campus will be prohibited when the students return in the fall. The university said it was adopting the new policy even though it will mean an annual loss of $50,000 in revenue to the school.
This week the Public Health Committee of the American Medical Association is considering resolutions that would have the AMA take a leading role in cracking down on smoking. Last year the AMA supported legislation that would have banned all tobacco advertising.
Also this week, the Federal Trade Commission charged R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company with misrepresenting the health risks of smoking in its advertising, a charge the company denied. It was the first time in a decade that the government had questioned the claims in a tobacco firm's advertising.
Last month the General Services Administration, which runs federally owned buildings, proposed banning smoking in work areas, corridors, lobbies, restrooms, auditoriums, and conference rooms of some 7,000 federal buildings. Unless overturned, the ban presumably would take effect later this year.