Ending a Smoke Screen

The long-impervious legal defenses of the tobacco industry have at last been breached. One of their own, Liggett Group, has, in essence, confessed and turned state's witness.

You know a stubborn wrong is closer to being righted when both truth and satire arrive at the scene.

On Thursday satirist Art Buchwald wrote: "A defrocked scientist fired by a large tobacco company called his outfit 'Merchants of Death' and was sued by his bosses for revealing a trade secret."

The same day, to settle multiple lawsuits, Liggett, smallest of America's five major tobacco companies, did disclose just such industry secrets: (a) nicotine is addictive, (b) smoking causes disease, and (c) teenagers are targeted to provide future customers.

Those admissions are likely to start a rear-guard action in which the tobacco majors will continue to defend their lucrative business in court while attempting to sell (meaning buy) Congress on the idea of exempting them from past liability.

Americans can now hope that the self-rescue of current smokers and the prevention of a new generation of tobacco users will proceed with less distraction from the lures of such commercial pushers.

To paraphrase one of those lures: It's taken a long time, baby. Roughly a century ago the Anti-Cigarette League proclaimed every cigarette smoked was a nail in one's coffin. Short story author O. Henry promptly popularized the words. "Say, sport," he has a hobo ask a cowboy, "have you got a coffin nail on you?"

O. Henry also used another prescient term: Demon Rum. Now what's needed is pressure to cause some Liggett of the liquor industry to admit knowledge of alcohol's effects on individuals, families, and society. Perhaps the 22 state attorneys general who won the Liggett victory ought to consider action to make giant distilleries pay for what their products cost society in treatment, prevention, lives lost, cars demolished. Pious liquor ads urging moderation and maturity are undercut by marketing to the young and a rise in binge drinkers. The latest company denials came after a children's advocacy group complained that liquor and beer firms are appealing to underage drinkers with animations and other material on some 24 World Wide Web sites.

In the era when O. Henry wrote of "coffin nails," the founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, saw that wise individuals had a reason beyond fear to cease being inebriates and slaves of tobacco; namely, that "there is no real pleasure in false appetites."

Evidence abounds that many people want to kick their habits of legal or illegal drugs. A Boston Globe survey of fraternities reports a trend toward "no smoking" signs, and the announcement by two of America's biggest fraternities that they will phase in a ban on alcohol over the next three years.

It's time for society as a whole to build on such efforts.

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