THE $50 billion American tobacco industry is doing a slow burn.
Hounded by critics, major tobacco companies are battling a series of embarrassing charges. Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, a leading opponent of the industry, claims that manufacturers spike cigarettes with extra nicotine, lure young people into smoking, and suppress unfavorable research.
Tobacco industry leaders flatly deny every charge. They accuse Mr. Waxman of mounting an effort to ban the sale of cigarettes in the United States and to drive them out of business.
Caught in the middle of all this are 46 million American smokers who puff 500 billion cigarettes every year. Under growing criticism, many smokers feel besieged and unwelcome in offices, restaurants, and even their own homes, where lighting up has increasingly become taboo.
The chorus of complaints reflects a gradual, but profound, change in public attitudes since World War II, when cigarettes were shipped to American troops overseas to boost their morale.
Lawmakers have tightened the screws on the industry, especially in the past two decades. Today the federal government requires health warning labels on packages and in advertising.
Governments impose over $13 billion a year in federal, state, and local excise taxes (partly to discourage consumption). And laws restrict smoking in more and more public places, even some open-air ballparks.
Yet Waxman, a former smoker, remains unsatisfied. ``We know they can take the nicotine out,'' the congressman says. ``Let's require them to take it out. If we're going to leave nicotine in to any extent, we ought to have a warning label...that would say, `Warning: Nicotine is addictive.' ''
In fact, cigarette companies say they can remove the nicotine using a process similar to that used by decaffeinated coffeemakers. In the 1980s, Phillip Morris U.S.A., the nation's largest tobacco firm, spent $350 million to research, promote, and start production of a nicotine-free cigarette.
William Campbell, president of Phillip Morris, says the nicotine-free product failed because smokers found the taste flat. ``Nicotine seems to have an impact that's like carbonation in a soda,'' he says.
Waxman considers nicotine the critical element in his struggle with cigarettemakers. If Congress can be convinced that nicotine is addictive, much like heroin and cocaine, then tobacco might be brought under much tighter federal regulation.
To bolster his case, the congressman cites a 1988 report by the Surgeon General on the health consequences of smoking. The report states bluntly: ``Cigarettes and other forms of tobacco are addicting. Nicotine is the drug in tobacco that causes addiction. The pharmacologic and behavioral processes that determine tobacco addiction are similar to those that determine addiction to drugs such as heroin and cocaine.''
Armed with such evidence, Waxman charges that ``cigarettes are the single most dangerous consumer product ever sold.''
Public sentiment is hardening against tobacco, and much is at stake. Both sides cite huge numbers to bolster their arguments. Pro-tobacco forces say that in states like North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and South Carolina, the industry is vital - generating hundreds of millions of dollars.
The latest available figures for 1992 show that the tobacco industry employed 48,800 people in manufacturing. Those jobs pay extremely well, especially at a time when blue-collar workers are hard-pressed in other industries. Cigarettemakers pay their manufacturing employees an average wage of $20.68 an hour.
Tobacco is also a valuable cash crop for thousands of farmers, just as it was in colonial times, when it was the leading export from Virginia. Today tobacco is the nation's seventh largest cash crop, bringing in $3 billion to 136,000 farms in 23 states and Puerto Rico.
Yet Waxman insists this patina of prosperity that surrounds cigarette-making cities like Winston-Salem, N.C., and Richmond, Va., is marred by the damage their products inflict across the country. According to the best available estimates from the medical community, 419,000 Americans are killed every year by the direct effects of smoking, while another 53,000 succumb as a result of passive smoke.
As Waxman notes, that means an average of nearly 1,300 Americans are lost every day because of tobacco products - the equivalent, he says, of a series of daily jumbo-jet crashes. Yet this health disaster goes virtually unnoted by most Americans.
Rep. Thomas Bliley Jr. (R) of Virginia says the ``unprecedented assault'' on tobacco is ``driven not by science, but by press release.''
Waxman presses ahead, however. Despite denials from tobaccomakers, he insists they are ``manipulating'' nicotine levels in cigarettes ``to get people addicted.''
To cut off recruiting of new smokers, Waxman would ban cigarette advertising, which he says now totals up to $4 billion a year.