WASHINGTON — THE public is huffing and puffing over efforts by Congress to restrict cigarettes and other forms of tobacco.
``This issue is much broader than smoking,'' complains J.R., a woman from Hyattsville, Md., in a letter to Congress. ``It is an issue of a government using my hard-earned dollars to legislate my lifestyle. In some arenas, that philosophy has been called communism.''
Smoking opponents are equally irate. After a House subcommittee grilled top-ranking cigarette company executives at televised hearings, a New Jersey doctor wrote to Rep. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma, saying: ``I thoroughly agree with your stand concerning the evils of smoking. I was astounded at the testimony of various heads of the tobacco companies who ... swear that there is no tobacco addiction present. This has to be the epitome of falsification.''
Antismoking efforts have gained surprising momentum since last month's televised hearings chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California.
This week, antismoking congressmen struck again with an amendment that could reach the floor of the House as early as today. The amendment, proposed by Congressman Synar, would be Capitol Hill's toughest action yet against the tobacco interests.
The amendment would give the Food and Drug Administration clear-cut authority to regulate the ``manufacture ... distribution, sale, labeling, advertising, promotion, and content of products containing tobacco.''
The only limitation to FDA's authority under the Synar proposal would be a rule that the agency could not ban sales outright of cigarettes or other products containing tobacco. FDA would still have powerful options, however. For example, regulators could order cigarette makers to remove all nicotine from their products.
Tough talk coming from Capitol Hill has riled many of the nation's 46 million cigarette smokers, as well as some nonsmokers.
M.E., a woman in Idaho, wonders: ``Is there anything that we can do to prevent government from continuing to erode our rights?'' She notes in a letter: ``I am a smoker, but I am also very concerned about all the personal rights that are seeming to be legislated against.''
P.L., a Tennessee woman, makes a similar point. She calls the efforts of Mr. Waxman and Rep. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, another antismoking legislator, ``an attempt to dictate lifetyle to conform to what they perceive to be political correctness! I am so angry about this attempt to criminalize tobacco.''
Some Americans complain that Waxman & Co. are ``torturing,'' as one writer put it, the tobacco companies, even though they are engaged in a lawful business.
After Waxman and three of his Democratic colleagues (Synar, Mr. Wyden, and Rep. John Bryant of Texas) cross-examined tobacco officials at their hearings, C.J. of San Antonio wrote: ``Those four congressmen were a disgrace. The arrogance of a one-party government is sickening.... I don't need `Big Brother' telling me what's good for me and what isn't.''
R.S. of New Jersey likened the tobacco hearings to ``McCarthyism,'' a comparison also made by many others, including A.H. of California, who accused Waxman of ``extreme hubris'' and ``bullyboy tactics.''
Yet a number of voters insist Waxman is on the right track. G.H. of Pittsburgh writes that ``it infuriates me'' when he sees smokers forcing others to breathe their second-hand smoke in public places.
He says: ``They casually infringe on others' rights while they spew their hypocritical rhetoric of freedom. People should have the right to smoke. In their own space.''
G.H. also complains about employers who permit smoking in the workplace, thereby forcing nonsmokers to make a difficult choice between what he calls the ``danger'' of bad air and the loss of their jobs. ``There is no reason that this situation should exist,'' he says.
Young people are the focus of many letter writers. J.S. in West Virginia says: ``Something must be done to control the influence of the tobacco industry, particularly on our children.'' She wonders whether new FDA regulations would supercede tougher local rules.
C.D. in Oklahoma says the answer is clear: tobacco should be ``labeled as a drug'' - a goal of many legislators on Capitol Hill. FDA has expressed an interest in regulating tobacco as a drug, but officials there hesitate because they have no clear mandate from Congress.
If there is one area where the public sharply disagrees, it is the question of tobacco's addictive qualities. Waxman, Synar, and other antismoking advocates are adamant that the nicotine in tobacco hooks smokers in ways comparable to narcotics.
C.M. of Oklahoma lends weight to that argument. ``Not everyone has it easy when trying to quit. It isn't as easy as nonsmokers might think,'' she writes.
T.F. of California, however, scoffs at Waxman's views. ``I have never heard of anyone robbing, stealing and/or killing for a cigarette, but it's a well-documented fact that hard-drug users do so every minute of the day,'' he writes.
A smoker, P.L., complains: ``I ... resent being called a drug addict.'' And R.S. in New Jersey, who says he easily quit smoking after 30 years, insists: ``I am convinced that nicotine is not an addictive drug.''
With all the other issues before them this summer, including health care, welfare reform, and a costly crime bill, it is uncertain whether Congress wants to take on the tobacco issue. But tobacco is clearly under the heaviest attack on Capitol Hill in years.