Washington — ``Warning: Smoking is addictive. Once you start you may not be able to stop.'' This is the message that Dr. C.Everett Koop, the surgeon general, would like to have printed on cigarette packs. It is also the latest finding of the surgeon general, who now talks about nicotine addiction in the same breath as he talks about cocaine and heroin addiction.
Presenting the government's 19th annual report on smoking yesterday, Dr. Koop said that people smoke because they are addicted to nicotine, a by-product of the tobacco leaves.
To a smoker, this may not be news, and in fact, may not be enough to cause people to quit smoking.
Ruth Phillips, a college student in New York, says, ``You have to be an idiot not to know that already.'' She says she would have ignored this warning if it were on a cigarette pack. The same is true of Michelle Voon, another college student, who has been smoking since she was 13 years old. She says she knew smoking was addictive before she started smoking, and she hopes to quit eventually.
But the surgeon general and anti-smoking forces hope their report will send a powerful message. Koop reasons, ``If I were a smoker and I were trying to quit and somebody said to me, `You're an addict to a drug' ... I think it would give me more resolve to do what I want to do - alone - or I'd say, `Take me to the doctor and get some help.'''
Smokers, for the most part, however, bridle at the suggestion that they are drug addicts. Smoker Joseph Alfano, a reservation supervisor at a New York travel agency, says he only considers drug addicts ``people who are harmful to society because of what they are doing. Drug addiction has such a negative connotation.''
Because of the negative image of addiction, the tobacco industry is certain to fight any attempt to place an addiction label on a cigarette pack. The Tobacco Institute yesterday issued a release that said, ``This report trivializes the serious drug problem faced by society.'' As expected, the institute claims that there is no proof that smoking causes a physical dependence.
``The tobacco industry was willing to fall on its sword to keep the word addiction'' away from cigarettes, says Mathew Myers, staff director of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health. Teen-agers, he notes, ``won't accept the premise that someone else is controlling their behavior.''
The surgeon general's report is taken seriously in Congress. Koop met with congressional leaders yesterday afternoon to make suggestions on specific antismoking legislation. Three congressmen held a press conference with representatives of the antismoking groups to discuss the proposed legislation that each is sponsoring.
Koop says he would like Congress to pass legislation that would brand tobacco products as addictive as soon as possible. In addition, he would like to see an increase in the excise tax on cigarettes to try and discourage young smokers. And he also would like to see the tobacco industry ``admonished'' from Capitol Hill.
There is little doubt that Congress is rapidly changing its attitude toward smoking. Last year, Rep. Thomas Luken (D) of Ohio was too busy to see John Banzhaf, a spokesman for an antismoking organization, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). This year, he has invited Mr. Banzhaf to testify at a hearing sponsored by a subcommittee that he heads. The subcommittee is considering backing legislation that would repeal an immunity granted to the tobacco industry in the 1960s that protected them from liability lawsuits. ``It would take the profit out of tobacco if they had to respond to 300,000 liability suits a year,'' he says.
The surgeon general's report, in fact, might help lawyers who are battling the tobacco companies in current liability suits. ``The tobacco companies have long maintained that people smoke voluntarily. This report shows they become addicted,'' explains Banzhaf.
Still other legislation would add more straitjackets to the industry. Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California would like to see the tobacco industry regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And he promises that he will try to get RJR Nabisco Inc.'s new ``smokeless'' cigarette classified as a nicotine dispenser. ``We should get this stopped right away,'' he says. Still other legislation would ban tobacco advertising and promotion. Koop promises to work to get those who sell cigarettes licensed much as liquor stores have licenses.
However, almost all the congressmen agree that the chances of getting legislation to outlaw smoking through Congress are not high, or even desirable, noting that it would be like Prohibition, which banned drinking. People continued to drink even though it was illegal. The congressmen believe the same would be true of smoking. ``We must persuade people it is a habit they can quit and break,'' says Representative Waxman.