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Our Most Respected Drug Pushers

By Adam L. Berger

I REMEMBER the first time I learned about the evil of tobacco. It was in seventh grade health class; in between the units on exercise and diet, Mr. Cohen squeezed in a week on smoking. He showed slides of lungs blackened nearly to unrecognizability. He handed out fact sheets only a necrologist could love. He played a film showing an emphysemic old woman sitting in a rocking chair and coughing out a sad story that cast her as an ignorant victim of the smoking industry.

She was right, too. Years ago, before the scientific verdict on the dangers of smoking was conclusive, consumers were practically helpless. They had few clues about the lethal properties of the three-inch unfiltered weapon held tightly between their fingers. The smoking industry--an age-old cartel deriving economic sustenance from marketing death--certainly wasn't about to tell them.

Deep coughing, a predisposition to sickness and a perpetual sluggishness were hints that something was up. But just as one-time MIT engineering professor John Sununu can decry the "fuss" over global warming and ozone depletion, the public relations experts from the tobacco industry continued to assuage the doubts of their wheezing and cancerous customers with advertising like, "More doctors smoke Camels than any other brand.

And they were pretty good at it, too. When my grandfather quit smoking in the mid-1960s, he did so not for health reasons, but because he suddenly realized how much money he would save by breaking the habit.

Today, my grandfather would have lots of other, more compelling reasons to quit his habit. He was killing himself, he was killing my grandmother and he was killing my father.

Recent research has concluded that second-hand smoke is at least as potent as "active" smoking. People who have never touched a cigarette in their lives are dying of lung cancer. Science has confirmed in the past few years what most people have suspected all along: Smoking kills the smoker and those closest to the smoker.

PHILIP Morris and other tobacco giants are, for once, on the defensive. Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, secretary of Health and Human Services, has taken on the merchants of death, denouncing their marketing tactics. The state of California has instituted a 35-cent per pack tax, despite a tobacco-industry lobbying campaign that was sleazy even by the standards of cigarette companies. (The tax will be used to finance a hard-hitting anti-smoking campaign). And a courageous few top athletes are starting, at long last, to challenge the tobacco industry's sponsorship and association with fitness contests such as the Virginia Slims tennis tournament.

Like any other wounded animal, the tobacco industry is lashing back. Realizing that their flat-earth rhetoric about the "inconclusive" and "tenuous" links between smoking and disease is no longer fooling anybody, their defense has become more shrill, more cagey. Call it a three-pronged attack; the metaphor conjures up images of pitchforks, which nicely complement the satanic motif already inherent in fire, smoke and self-inflicted suffering.

Step one for the tobacco industry has been to refocus its marketing strategy. Starting with the premise that only a total ignoramus would start smoking, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company has targeted a minimally educated demographic subgroup: 18 to 24-year-old, white, blue-collar women, a.k.a. "virile women," one of the few groups within which smoking is increasing. (In reality, "18 to 24-year-old" is a euphemism for "teenage," the age group that includes fully nine out of 10 new smokers.)

Not satisfied with helping lung cancer overtake breast cancer as a leading killer of women, tobacco companies have also tailored their sales pitch to minorities and the poor. One company recently developed a plan--later dropped--to market a cigarette brand especially targeted at Black smokers.

The idea is that these groups are least likely to heed (if they ever encounter) warnings about the potential risks to themselves and their offspring. In other words, minorities, young women and the poor are the most likely suckers to replace the more than 300,000 customers that tobacco kills each year.

Thus, the economic classes that can least afford to be addicted to an expensive drug are the ones the tobacco companies pursue. As smoking becomes almost entirely a lower-class phenomenon, tobacco companies have begun to argue against anti-smoking ordinances by disingenuously pointing out that they are, well, classist.

Ploy number two is to target foreign (especially Third World) markets, where citizens are less aware of smoking's dangers. Even as the U.S. government condemns South American coca producers who export their drug to the U.S., American tobacco companies are selling their drug in locales such as China and the Philipines at record rates.

THE third and perhaps craftiest ploy of the tobacco industry has been to embrace the Constitution. Philip Morris has sponsored a high-profile media campaign to heap praise on the Bill of Rights. Send away to Philip Morris and they'll be glad to mail you a copy of the document that guarantees our precious democratic liberties.

Why? The message underlying this P.R. gimmick is that those who would deny Philip Morris the right to sell or advertise their cancer-sticks or deny their customers the right to smoke them are depriving them of a Constitutionally protected right. Outside Congressional hearings this summer on H.R. 1250, a bill to drastically curtail cigarette advertising, the tobacco lobby passed out bright red t-shirts that read, "H.R. 1250: A Licence to Kill Free Speech."

Two hundred years of American history have demonstrated how flexible the Constitution is, but Philip Morris is stretching it way out of shape. There is nothing even remotely Constitutional about killing your fellow citizens. If euthnasia (killing people in accordance with their wishes) is a slippery judicial question, then the gradual murder of ignorant victims--be they smokers or non-smokers exposed to other people's smoke--hasn't a snowball's chance in hell of finding refuge in the Constitution.

In its recent crusade for civil liberties, the tobacco lobby has found fervent allies in the media industry, which grows fat on tobacco advertising revenues. The executive vice-president of the Magazine Publishers of America testified before a congressional committee that restricting cigarette advertising would lead to an upsurge in smoking because "the prominent health warnings now carried in all magazine tobacco advertising will not be seen by millions of readers." And he said this with a straight face!

SO HERE we are, in the midst of a mounting public relations battle between the tobacco industry and antismoking forces. On one side are pitted the forces of health, economic welfare and morality. On the other side are the forces of destruction, economic injustice and amorality. Where do we stand?

It seems a pretty clear-cut choice. To show support for the anti-smoking side, here are a few suggestions:

. Enforce existing anti-smoking regulations at Harvard. Smoking in common areas of dormitories, houses and other campus buildings is prohibited by Massachusetts law, Cambridge ordinance and Harvard regulation. Yet it happens all the time. Non-smokers should not be subjected to second-hand smoke drifting across a cafeteria or lingering in a hallway or entryway.

America's most respected drug pushers have flooded the media with advertisements urging smokers and nonsmokers to iron out their differences by talking to each other and respecting each others' "rights." This is ridiculous. Students should not have to apply moral suasion to their smoking peers to get them to comply with the law. Official reprimands and, if necessary, Ad Board discipline are appropriate for those who recklessly endanger the health of their peers.

. Establish non-smoking houses. No student should be forced to live above, next to, or even on the same hallway as a smoker. Surely residential diversity is a laudable goal when it brings together different races and cultures. But bringing together smokers and non-smokers at the expense of the non-smokers' health is hardly a logical extension of this thinking. First-year dormitories already have non-smoking entryways. Non-smoking upperclass students should have the same option.

. Boycott restaurants in the Square which have inadequate non-smoking facilities. This includes, for example, the invisible "border" in the middle of a dining room separating the smoking and non-smoking sections, which often places smoking tables within a few feet of non-smoking tables.

. Turn Harvard into a "smoke-free" environment, in which no smoking is permitted inside any Harvard-owned property.

Would these measures violate smokers' right? Only in the sense that it deprives them of their "right" to indulge in their favorite recreational drug whenever and whereever they want. On the other hand, these measures would protect the very real right of every American to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

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