IT'S been clear since November that Congress would drop its antismoking efforts like a burned-out butt.
The new chairman of the House subcommittee on health and the environment is Rep. Thomas Bliley Jr. (R) of Virginia. Tobacco giant Philip Morris is headquartered in his district. He replaced Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, whose hearings last year resulted in tobacco company executives staring into TV cameras to tell the nation - straightfaced! - that smoking was not addictive.
Now the House is moving to make federal regulations harder to enact or enforce; even the executive branch may be stopped cold turkey as an antismoking advocate. But there are signs that efforts at the state and local levels, and in the courts, are still putting heat on the tobacco companies:
* A New Orleans judge has allowed the first national class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies. Up to 40 million current smokers and 50 million former smokers may be eligible to join the suit. It could become the largest such suit in history.
* The State of Maryland is about to enact one of nation's toughest bans on smoking in the workplace.
* In last fall's elections, California voters decisively defeated a proposition to weaken local smoking restrictions; Arizona voters approved a 40 percent hike in state cigarette taxes.
* Dunkin' Donuts announced last month it would ban smoking in its 3,000 retail coffee shops. It follows the lead of McDonald's, which banned smoking last year.
* Florida and Mississippi recently joined Minnesota and West Virginia in seeking compensation from tobacco companies for the billions of dollars the states have spent on Medicaid to treat smoking-related illnesses.
Of course, much more can and must be done. Studies show that almost everyone now hooked on the habit began before age 20. Cigarette manufacturers continue to make blatant appeals to teens. Joe Camel and his friends try to hook them with cheap gifts and messages of sexual attractiveness and weight control.
Incredibly, tobacco interests have managed to convince some conservatives that ``health Nazis'' in Washington want to restrict personal freedoms by curbing smoking in public. But edicts from Congress may not be needed if grass-roots groups can step up their efforts to kick the habit.