It's a smoking hot win


BOSTON -- You have to hand it to the tobacco moguls. These guys really know their business. Which is, of course, the advertising business.

After the Senate deep-sixed the tobacco bill, I let my fingers do the walking through pages and pages of cigarette ads. Guess what? The young and the ecstatically happy are still doing their "woman thing" with Virginia Slims. The rich and the thin are still lighting Parliaments by the pool. The addicted and delighted have even gone on a hot air balloon adventure with Dorals.

This standard workaday false image-making doesn't even compare to the $40 million public dis-service campaign that undid the Senate deal. The folks who make cancer glamorous created the campaign that ultimately convinced many senators that they could get away with letting tobacco get away with it.

A taxing question

Back in April, they set out to transform the image of an anti-tobacco bill into a pro-tax bill. Ads, postcards and sign-up campaigns-- the whole works -- focused on the $1.10-a-pack tax.

The commercials redefined the McCain bill as a regressive tax on the working class. In one commercial, they called it "a tax on 45 million Americans making under $30,000 a year." They even had a service worker complain, "I work hard. Why single me out?"

It's always a bit hard for me to inhale the idea of the tobacco lobby as a bunch of political progressives. Or, the smoker as tax victim. This was a voluntary tax. Anybody who didn't want to pay, didn't have to smoke. Were the ads suggesting that nicotine was addictive?

But the campaign allowed some of the very senators who favor "personal responsibility" to recast themselves as friends of the working-and-smoking class. Not Joe Six-Pack but Joe Camel.

I still find it amazing that the lobby could spin so quickly with all those carcinogens in their lungs. Yet, apparently it worked. According to one poll, 22 percent of those polled believed the tobacco bill was mainly directed at teen smoking. Sixty percent said it was directed at tax revenue.

Allow me to say that I too had qualms. Many senators did start to regard the anti-tobacco bill as the proverbial cookie jar. I think we ought to support programs like child care out of the budget, not the ashtray.

The irony is that Republicans were the ones who spent the last several weeks trying to tag every amendment -- from the marriage tax to the anti-drug programs -- onto the deal.

It became harder to get the bill through the Senate than nicotine through a cement filter.

But in return for giving the moguls some protection from lawsuits, that bill would have made sure the Federal Drug Administration had power to regulate tobacco and forced the companies to make their internal research public. It would also have -- unholy smokes -- curtailed marketing to minors and made the companies pay serious penalties if the level of young smokers didn't drop off.

The question now as the tobacco fight goes into the next phase is whether this victory will let the tobacco pushers off the hook. Unlikely. On Monday, President Clinton took a step to keep public pressure on the designated villains. The Department of Health and Human Services is now going to monitor the brands preferred by kids as part of its annual drug abuse survey.

More lies

Sooner or later, the folks who believed RJR, Philip Morris and the boys when they talk about taxes will remember how they lied about cancer. It was C. Everett Koop who said the deal-breakers had committed "public health malpractice."

More to the point, if the deal is off, the lawsuits are back on. There are 37 state attorneys general lined up to sue the cigarette makers. In the past year alone, the companies paid $36 billion to settle four state Medicaid suits. As many as a thousand litigants are said to be suing for damages, using evidence that manufacturers knew the dangers of their product.

There are even more radical ideas around that would send the tobacco chieftains into deep, shaking withdrawal. The American Medical Association, for example, just called for the gradual removal of nicotine from cigarettes.

But there is a familiar message-- a noncommercial message -- in this debacle: Never underestimate the depth of the pockets or the skill of those folks who made Marlboro Country look patriotic. As they keep spinning through the next political cycle, imagine a small white rectangle in the corner of every commercial. Surgeon general's warning: This political ad is hazardous for public health.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/24/98

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