VOTERS in Massachusetts have just sent smokers and potential smokers in the state a powerful message: If you want to smoke, be prepared to pay. Their approval of a ballot initiative known as Question 1, which received 54 percent of the vote, raises the tax on cigarettes by 25 cents a pack effective Jan. 1. This gives the state the highest cigarette tax in the nation.
Studies have shown that higher prices dramatically reduce the number of smokers, especially among young people. The extra revenues, expected to total $130 million a year, will be used for anti-smoking campaigns.
The bitter referendum battle, which followed a similar successful initiative in California four years ago, pitted anti-smoking activists against anti-tax groups and tobacco lobbyists. Cigarette companies spent almost $7 million trying to defeat the measure, and they are not giving up. Their next attempt will be to derail forthcoming anti-smoking campaigns.
The referendum serves as the latest heartening evidence of changing attitudes. Who could have imagined, 15 or 20 years ago, that airlines would prohibit smoking on domestic flights, or that restaurants would offer smoking and no-smoking sections? And who could have foreseen that even secondhand smoke would become an issue in custody cases as nonsmoking parents try to prevent former spouses from smoking near their children?
The case against tobacco continues to grow. Janet Sackman, once a high-profile model in cigarette ads, now tours the United States and Europe as an anti-smoking crusader because of severe medical problems attributed to 33 years of smoking. And before his death from lung cancer last summer, Wayne McLaren, a former Marlboro man, offered himself as "dying proof" of the dangers of cigarettes.
Even France, which has one of the highest rates of smokers in Western Europe, this month implemented a tough anti-smoking law that bans smoking in restaurants, offices, and public places except in specific smoking areas.
Now attitudes toward drinking need to undergo an equally radical shift. Every year, nearly 20,000 fatal automobile accidents in the US involve alcohol. The surgeon general estimated that alcohol-related problems - lost employment, reduced productivity, health care - cost the nation $60 billion in 1990.
Some states are introducing driver's licenses that indicate at a glance whether a driver is under 21 - a step that should make it harder for under-age drivers to be served alcohol.
Only a few years ago, many Americans regarded smoking and drinking as harmless and gratifying expressions of adult sophistication. Now warnings against the damaging effects of both alcohol and nicotine to the infant in a mother's womb measure the radical change in perception that has occurred. Freedom of choice must be respected. But to free individuals from the habit of toxic drugs is a purpose worth pursuing even further within the guidelines of a democratic society.