The surgeon general's new front

IN releasing his indictment of tobacco products as addictive drugs, US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop struck a blow for ``freedom.'' To be sure, the tobacco industry does not see it that way. Tobacco growers have labeled Dr. Koop's 618-page report unscientific. The industry, through the Tobacco Institute, continues to maintain that smoking is a matter of personal choice, as is the decision to quit.

In Koop's recommendations for further restrictions on tobacco products, the industry sees yet more attempts to tighten constraints on that choice.

But the desirability of ``free choice'' on whether or not to use tobacco pales before the desirability of a society as free as possible from addiction of any sort, whether it be cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, or any other harmful substance.

Giving up one's dominion to the influence of a drug is no way to maintain the mental independence, sharpness, dignity, and self-control necessary to function optimally in a democratic society.

The issue of voluntarism applied to starting smoking may be one matter, and voluntarism in ending the addiction may be quite another matter - let alone escaping the long-term health penalties widely ascribed to smoking. The individual may have to deal with the side effects that medical authorities identify with quitting.

While many people do succeed in kicking the habit, many others struggle unsuccessfully against what they perceive as tobacco's grip on their lives.

Indeed, Koop has highlighted medical research that identifies the addictive effects of nicotine in tobacco as analogous to those of heroin or cocaine.

The notion that tobacco is addictive isn't new. But seldom, if ever, has it been said so explicitly from such a highly visible public official. Even the surgeon general's report of 1964, which opened the way for warning labels on cigarette packages, only went so far as to call tobacco use a habit.

To their credit, Americans have been reducing their consumption of tobacco products markedly during the past dozen years. People have taken tobacco companies to court, contending that they should be liable for damages incurred through smoking, just as other manufacturers are liable for the safety of their products. This report should add weight to those efforts.

But even as it sets the pace internationally in combating dependence on tobacco, the US should also give second thought to its avid promotion for exporting tobacco products.

It is grossly inconsistent for a society to shun tobacco as unhealthy at home and then promote it abroad.

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