BOSTON -- It's time once more to check in on the cigarette ads. After all, our heroes in the tobacco industry have such a remarkable instinct for survival -- corporate survival -- that they evolve with a speed that is the envy of Siberian tigers.
In the real world, smokers have become outcasts, huddled together in doorways breathing carcinogens. In Washington, the administration is planning another massive suit and a hefty 55-cents-a-pack tax.
But in the advertising world, beleaguered addicts are now portrayed as rebellious, smoke-in-your-face, risk-takers. Smokers with an Attitude.
See the feisty Virginia Slims model ripping up a picture of Mr. Wrong: "It's a Woman Thing." Even old Joe Camel has been replaced by an extraterrestrial geek and a notice that mocks all surgeon general warnings: "Viewer Discretion Advised: This Ad Contains Interspecies Dating, Disorderly Conduct, Smoking Seafood."
This revved-up pitch to the Gen-X smokers looks as if the tobacco folks are confident of the future. And maybe they are.
Remember last fall when the tobacco deal broke down in that wholly owned subsidiary known as the United States Congress?
The attorneys general had started out challenging Big Tobacco to change its ways. As Richard Daynard of the Tobacco Products Liability Project puts it, "They all held press conferences saying we really want to stop this industry from hooking another generation -- and we want some money. They ended up with the money."
A full 46 states signed on to a settlement for $206 billion over 25 years to compensate them for smoking-related Medicaid costs. But in return the moguls got a deal less threatening to their survival than a nicotine patch.
The settlement didn't give the FDA the right to regulate nicotine like any other drug. It didn't penalize the companies if they kept recruiting young smokers. It didn't close up the ad loopholes which are, in Mr. Daynard's words, "big enough to drive a camel through." And it did nothing about secondhand smoke.
Today many of the states look at the settlement as a cash cow instead of a public-health defender. In Los Angeles the mayor wants to use some of the money to fix sidewalks. In Alabama they want it to build boot camps for young offenders.
In many states, officials want to use the funds to buy ventilators and broncho-dilators and chemotherapy for smokers -- which is fine, but a little bit like buying iron lungs for polio victims instead of vaccines. And last week, Mr. Clinton included $53 billion in the budget that he hopes to claim from the settlement.
It's enough to make you think we're all so financially hooked on tobacco money that smoking will become patriotic.
If there's any hope for making these drug dealers reform, it probably rests with the suit for federal Medicare funds.
This last minute entry into Mr. Clinton's State of the Union address surprised even the "No Bull" crowd. The administration is trying to get back the anti-smoking momentum with a threat to sue for the hundreds of billions of dollars that smoking-related illnesses cost Medicare.
The beauty of this tactic is that the president doesn't need the approval of Congress to sue. And the industry really can't risk bringing such a huge case to a jury. As Greg Connolly, the peripatetic anti-smoking advocate behind the Massachusetts campaign says, "If the feds win on Medicare, Marlboro will either be obsolete or cost $20 a pack."
Even if this case never gets to court, the threat offers a chance to remake the deal that broke down last time -- an agreement more about lungs than cash cows, more about our grandchildren's health than today's tax revenue.
We know that raising the cost of cigarettes cuts smoking, especially among the young. But in this second round, we also need to empower the FDA to regulate, to curb even my favorite ads and punish companies if they keep addicting the young.
In this endgame of the fight against tobacco, it isn't just the money, stupid. It's still the country's health.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 2/07/99