Commercial conscience

IN the public struggle between tobacco's promoters and those who would end its use, it is important not to confuse the battle for the war. The American Medical Association's decision to attack smoking -- by seeking federal legislation banning advertising of tobacco products, vending machine sales, and sales of such products to minors -- may not succeed in the short run. On the airwaves, which are subject to public licensing, advertising bans can be imposed. But in the general press, rights of access for product promotion, like ideas' promotion, are constitutionally safeguarded. By choosing an ad ban as a vehicle for combating smoking, the AMA is rallying the worlds of commerce, publishing, and rights advocacy to the tobacco industry's side -- but only as to method, not to end.

Who, really, can justify the promotion of an activity that is noxious to users and at the least obnoxious to non-users? One can support the right of access for advertising and still shake one's head in disapproval of the exercise of that right.

The AMA, which attributes 350,000 deaths a year to tobacco use, achieves something worthwhile in urging Congress, which must write and evaluate legislation on the issue, and the publishing and advertising industries that support the tobacco trade, to confront the moral as well as legal issues of tobacco promotion.

As tobacco is considered an addictive substance, who can support advertising that would attract young people into a habit many may spend a lifetime attempting to shed? Who can countenance promoting a product as a ritual of success, a bauble of the good life, an elixir for relaxation, when these are fictions covering up an enslaving practice? That young people and women seem most vulnerable to tobacco recruitment today is further cause for sadness.

Public-issue wars like the one over smoking can seem to take eons to decide. The tenacity of the tobacco trade -- with its supporters in Congress, its economic and legal arguments, the resistance of social mores to change -- illustrates how long such wars can take. Smoking has been banned or restricted in many public places. Nonsmokers' rights steadily gain recognition. The surgeon general has condemned smoking. And now the AMA has weighed in to call for action to halt tobacco promotion and to restrict its availability to minors, much the way alcohol availability is restricted.

At some point, perhaps society will awaken sufficiently to the simple wrongness of tobacco promotion, and agencies and publishers will voluntarily decline to handle it. The AMA has helped make the urgency of that moral decision less easily evaded.

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