Smoke signals for tobacco

TOBACCO is in the news again from a number of fronts. Proposals for banning cigarette advertising are being prepared for introduction into Congress. The debate on the dangers of black publications' dependence on tobacco advertising continues. A Chicago building-products company has announced a ban on employee smoking, on or off the job. And comic strip fans have been following the attempts of Steve Dallas, in ``Bloom County,'' to quit - even as, in ``For Better or For Worse,'' Elly faces up to the extent of her antismoking militancy: When her brother, a once and future ex-smoker, insists on just one cigarette, she forces him outside into the January cold.

All these episodes - Elly's moment of truth as much as any of them - are indications of how the national discussion on smoking is going. Tobacco is going the way of asbestos, but the way is likely to be none too smooth.

The ``quit-smoking-or-quit'' approach at USG Acoustical Products in Chicago, for instance, raises troubling civil-liberties questions. It is one thing to decree a smoke-free workplace, and another to insist that employees abstain at home, too - with clinical tests administered to track compliance. The policy ostensibly is being adopted for health reasons: Nonsmokers incur fewer sick leaves than those who light up. The company promises financial help for employees taking part in quit-smoking clinics before the ban comes into force in the months ahead.

But what about motivations? Is this being done chiefly to preserve employee health - or to cut the employer's health-care costs? The latter may be understandable, but are we getting to the point where employers will try to keep off the payroll employees deemed likely to strain company health insurance, if for no other reason than, say, the number of dependents they have needing coverage?

Proposals to ban cigarette ads raise questions of free speech, although a recent Supreme Court decision suggests that such a ban would be constitutionally permissible. But a legal product should be legally advertisable, some suggest.

To observe, however, that cigarettes remain a legal product while cyclamate sweeteners, for example, are not is to note that the American regulatory process is not wholly rational. Thus the argument for an ad ban should carry more weight.

The tobacco lobby insists that advertising is intended to build brand loyalty, not necessarily to create demand for the product. This argument might be credible from a coffinmaker but not from the manufacturer of any other product that comes readily to mind.

A future battle for tobacco may be over proposals to ban its production. Asbestos, for example, has been banned despite widespread use and pressure from the industry. Tobacco's case may differ, because it lends itself to personal addiction, aggravated by dubious claims to ``life-style appeal.''

Still, the trend for tobacco appears to be toward tighter restrictions on its use and less patience with its promotion.

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