Blow Away the Smoke

`I FEEL we shouldn't advertise something we know to be a poison and a killer.''

With these blunt words Dr. Joycelyn Elders has taken the most unequivocal stand against smoking of any US surgeon general in the past 30 years.

When she spoke her mind last week against tobacco advertising, she made no bones that she was targeting a campaign aimed at adolescents - such as the Joe and Josephine Camel ads.

Though it has been three decades since the first surgeon general's report warned that smoking carried serious health risks, the message has not gotten through to teenagers. Noting that the number of American smokers has been declining by about 2 million a year, Dr. Elders argues: ``Young people are the chief source of new customers.'' Since 1977, smoking among high school seniors has dropped by less than 10 percent, a disappointing decline considering the known dangers.

The $48 billion tobacco industry guilelessly protests that advertising - which gets written off as a tax-deductible business expense - has little to do with the alarming statistics that 1 out of 3 youngsters between 12 and 18 still smokes, and that 1 out of 5 high school males chews tobacco. Don't blame us, tobacco moguls say: They unconvincingly maintain that seductive ads are intended only to persuade smokers to switch brands.

Such smoke-and-mirror tactics no longer work, at least on adults.

Along with airlines, more restaurants are opting for a clean-air policy, including McDonald's Corporation, which as of last week has prohibited smoking in its 1,400 company-owned restaurants.

Meanwhile, the United States Food and Drug Administration has asserted its authority to regulate cigarettes, like other drugs, claiming that tobacco companies have been upping the nicotine content to assure addiction.

The industry is certain to invoke free enterprise and free speech ever more loudly as it insists upon its right to make and market its products without restriction, and the right of customers to indulge their taste.

Yet surveys show that 77 percent of those who do smoke would like to break the habit. They are joining nonsmokers in an expanding coalition for a smoke-free America, starting with the next generation. All that remains is for the next generation to get real and do their part.

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