Peg Browning's Heroic Example HOWARD COUNTY


So, Peg Browning, what do you tell the children?

"I usually tell them they are dumb, dumb, dumb if they smoke, and I ask them if they want a voice like mine. I ask them if they would like to spend a few hours with me, see how hard it is for me to eat. It's such an effort that I don't eat much. I'm losing weight. It's getting worse and worse."

Ms. Browning's words are more than a sermon on the evils of cigarettes. Along with the words, she presents a riveting image of the consequences of a bad habit. Ten years ago, the 63-year-old Ellicott City resident and former smoker had her cancerous larynx removed. Today, she breathes with the aid of an oxygen tank, connected to her throat by a long tube. She had to learn to talk again, and lives daily with the terrible side effects of radiation treatments.

But she lives with a purpose, testifying to adults at public hearings and, most convincingly, to children in county classrooms. Adults cringe at the sight of her, she says, while children seem curious. Rather than avoid the attention her malady brings, she welcomes it with the hope that she can do some good by discouraging the very young from a life -- and death -- as smokers.

She makes the current squabbling over a smoking ban in public places in Howard County seem trivial and undignified. After much wrangling, the County Council soft-pedaled its position when it exempted truck stops and some taverns in approving a smoking ban recently. And the motivations of County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who is now insisting on a total ban, seem dubious since he initially didn't want the county getting involved in the matter at all. County pols have turned a very serious issue into a petty battle over who can claim to have done the most to protect people from the effects of second-hand smoke.

Their posturing seems particularly shabby considered alongside the efforts of Peg Browning, who, child by child, classroom by classroom, is attempting to save peoples' lives.

Ms. Browning has transformed a disability into a tool for accomplishing something good. She learned her lesson the hard way. What she teaches is not only that some problems can be avoided, but that even devastasting consequences can be turned into something worthwhile.

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