Fuse Lit for New Anti-Smoking Fight

Times Staff Writer

Seven congressmen and aides to six other House or Senate members met over the weekend with 200 leaders of the U.S. anti-smoking movement in an unprecedented session to plot legislative strategy for the 101st Congress and the Bush Administration.

The conference at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, participants said, reflected the fast-shifting politics of tobacco and health.

Lawmakers who attended, and many others who did not, are “very eager to find the appropriate legislation to be involved in. And I don’t mean to imply . . . that they don’t also care,” said Julia Carol, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers Rights. “It’s just before they assumed it wasn’t safe. They could never beat the tobacco industry in Congress.”

Now lawmakers realize “there is enough public support . . . to override the tobacco industry’s political clout,” Carol said. “You can only keep a social revolution at bay for so long, and that’s what this is.”


Sen. Jeff Bingaman, (D-New Mexico), paraphrasing John Kenneth Galbraith, put it another way: “When all the people agree, the politicians can’t be far behind.”

‘There’s Energy Here’

The anti-smoking forces, often splintered, also seemed more united than ever here. “There’s energy here,” said Michael Pertschuk, former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and now head of the Washington, D.C.-based Advocacy Institute. “You’ve got 200 people here who are really serious players.”

Many participants took heart that the American Medical Assn., long criticized for lacking commitment to the cause, was a principal conference sponsor. The AMA increasingly has been visible and active in the anti-smoking campaign but some recalled that wasn’t always so.

When the first surgeon general’s report was issued in 1964, the AMA accepted$10 million from the tobacco companies to sponsor smoking and health research. The jury was still out on the effects of smoking--why else would such an eminent group launch a major research program? the cigarette makers then said. For its part, the AMA praised the industry’s “concern for the public health"--and refused to endorse a cigarette warning label.

Later, wracked by internal strife over its $1.4 million tobacco holdings, the AMA sold its tobacco stock in 1981.

But in Houston, by outward appearance, all groups were marching in step.

The AMA even extended an olive branch to a harsh critic, inviting Dr. Alan Blum to give a keynote address. Blum, former editor of the Medical Journal of Australia and the New York State Journal of Medicine, is a legend in the smoking control movement. He founded the physician-activist group, DOC--"Doctors Ought to Care,” whose chapters rent bus benches to advertise cigarette brands such as “Country Fresh Arsenic” and “Emphysema Slims.” They employ “good, cogent ridicule . . . to laugh the pushers out of town,” Blum said.

He is known for his bitter invective, not only against tobacco “narco-philanthropists” but against those he thinks are too soft on the industry, including the AMA. When he rose for his Friday presentation, he said he felt like “Prince Charles being invited to address the opening of the Argentinian soccer season.”

He called for a “re-vocabular-ization” of the smoking and health battle. “Low tar” should be “low poison” and tobacco industry foes should cease to be the “anti-smoking” movement. “We’re not here to just tell people what to do with their lives,” he said. “We are anti-heart disease, anti-cancer, anti-high medical costs.”

Behind Closed Doors

From the Houston workshops, most conducted behind closed doors, emerged a range of proposals that proponents hope to push in Congress, including efforts to ban cigarette ads and promotions or to restrict ads to text with no models or pictures.

They hope to raise the federal cigarette excise tax to discourage the young from starting to smoke and to support anti-smoking ad campaigns. To keep under-age children from buying cigarettes, they want measures to ban vending machine sales.

They also want to: eliminate federal support for tobacco farming; offer incentives to tobacco farmers to grow other crops; require warning labels on exported cigarettes; include a warning label stating that smoking can be addictive; bar trade sanctions against countries with barriers to U.S. tobacco products; and renew efforts to extend the Food and Drug Administration’s jurisdiction to include tobacco products.

There also will be efforts to expand or at least extend the airline smoking ban on flights of two hours or less, which is due to expire next year.

Congress is usually a burial ground for smoking control measures. (Indeed, participants at the Houston conference were abuzz about news reports of a session conducted at a resort earlier this month. It was attended by more than two dozen congressmen, who were guests of the tobacco industry.)

Hopes Raised

But the stunning passage a year ago of the airline smoking ban-- written by Rep. Richard J. Durbin, an obscure, junior Democratic member of the House elected in 1982 from Illinois--has raised hopes of anti-smoking forces.

Durbin, 44, recounted Saturday that he was uninvolved in the smoking issue until a few years ago, when he was seated between two smokers on an overcrowded flight. “Well, it was an inconvenience, of course,” he recalled. “What came to mind were the passengers who might suffer from some respiratory disease, or small children who might be thrust into the same situation.”

Durbin said the ticket agent told him she could do nothing about his seat. But noticing his title, she said: “But, congressman, there’s something you can do.”

“I lost three elections before I ever won one, and I came to the conclusion that success in politics has a lot to do with fate,” Durbin said. “Had I called that issue to a vote a year earlier, I might have lost.”

As they met in Houston, the anti-smoking forces took note of the issuance, two weeks earlier, of the latest surgeon general’s report. That document, issued on the 25th anniversary of the first, watershed surgeon general’s report on smoking, told of impressive gains in the battle against “the single most important preventable cause of death in our society.”

Since the mid-1960s, the percentage of adults who smoke had declined from more than 40% to 29%; some 40 million Americans had kicked the habit, averting hundreds of thousands of smoking-related deaths.

Crusade Stops at the Border

But smoking still contributes to almost 400,000 deaths a year or more than 1 of every 6 deaths in the U.S., the surgeon general said. Smoking has hung on most stubbornly among minorities, the less educated and the poor. New smokers are being recruited by the hundreds of thousands per year, 90% before they’re out of their teens. And efforts to curb smoking seem to have stopped at the border, with U.S. cigarette exports having climbed to all-time highs.

The weekend’s session offered participants a particularly timely moment to assess the past and future of the anti-smoking movement.

Proponents hope for more from the incoming president and his staff after eight years of the Reagan Administration, which anti-smoking forces regarded as indifferent to their cause.

The Reagan Administration did appoint Surgeon General Everett Koop, who became a scourge of the tobacco industry.

But in the Reagan era, U.S. trade negotiators also pressured Japan and other Asian countries to lower barriers to American cigarettes, helping achieve record exports that offset slumping domestic sales.

Nancy Reagan’s highly publicized campaign against drugs and alcohol also disappointed anti-smoking forces. “There was never any mention of nicotine addiction,” complained Scott Ballin, a vice president of the American Heart Assn. He said the recent vow of Bush’s new drug czar--former Education Secretary William Bennett--to quit smoking before he takes office is a positive sign.

The cigarette industry was not idle during the weekend conference. To present its side in local news reports about the session, the Tobacco Institute brought one of its barnstorming teams of experts, who offered their contrasting views to reporters from a conference room at a nearby hotel.

‘A Better Shot’

“We’re not storming the doors of their conference,” said Brennan Dawson, the institute’s media relations director, explaining, “We have a better shot at getting our side of the story in if we’re here, too.”

Dawson’s experts were Dwight Lee, an economics professor from the University of Georgia, and Dr. David Weeks, a physician and consultant from Boise, Ida. He said the institute was paying him $150 an hour.

Lee blasted excise taxes on tobacco and other products as regressive and unfair to the poor. He said higher taxes would reduce cigarette sales but without clear health benefits. Many smokers, he reasoned, would compensate by smoking their cigarettes further down.

Between puffs on Merits, Weeks argued there is no proof that nonsmokers can be harmed by second-hand smoke, and that tobacco smoke is not a problem in a properly ventilated building.

But both men seemed to break from some taboos of the tobacco industry with Lee once referring to cigarettes as “a legal drug"--certainly not the industry’s phrase of choice.

Weeks, when asked about his own smoking, told of his 96-year-old father, who he said was asked to stop smoking at the nursing home. But he conceded that smoking “is definitely a risk factor,” adding, “I don’t think anything causes cancer in itself.”