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Dole Revives Issue of Smoking’s Effects

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole bulled his way back into the debate over smoking Tuesday, insisting once again that tobacco may not be addictive and that criticism of his position by C. Everett Koop came about because the former Reagan administration surgeon general was “probably a little bit” brainwashed by “the liberal media.”

On a day that was meant to raise money, not hackles, the continuing tobacco controversy stuck to Dole like stubborn secondhand smoke, following the presumed Republican presidential candidate from one coast to the other.

The day, which ended with a Republican fund-raiser in Century City, began in New York, with the airing of an NBC “Today” show interview that Dole and his wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, had previously taped with interviewer Katie Couric.

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When Couric asked Dole about his previous statements that cigarettes are not addictive, the candidate responded: “There is a mixed view among scientists and doctors whether it’s addictive or not. I’m not certain whether it’s addictive. It is to some people.”

After repeating his objections to the Food and Drug Administration’s plans for regulating tobacco advertising--and his belief that people who do smoke should stop--Dole then proceeded to lash the news media, brushing past what appeared to be attempts by his wife to return the discussion to the ostensible topic of the interview, the new edition of the couple’s joint biography.

“Only people like you--only people like you in the media” question him on the tobacco issue, he told Couric. “You may be violating the FCC regulations by always, you know, sticking up for the Democrats and advertising their line on your show,” he declared.

When Couric then asked if Dole thought Koop, who had publicly criticized his statements on tobacco had been “brainwashed” by the press, Dole snapped back, “probably a little bit.”

The exchange left White House officials ecstatic. “The worst TV interview since Roger Mudd and Ted Kennedy,” crowed one senior aide to President Clinton, referring to a disastrous session during the 1980 campaign in which Kennedy seemed incapable of saying why he wanted to be president.

Clinton strategists believe the issue may have enough potential to harm Dole, particularly among families with children--a crucial bloc of swing votes--that they may begin airing television advertisements on the subject, the aide said.

Clinton, himself, weighed in, praising Koop during a speech to an audience of senior citizens in Chicago. “He’s out there fighting for our children and that’s what we need more people to do--fight for our children and not play politics with this issue,” the president said.

For Republicans, the dispute over tobacco has been an unwelcome interruption at a time when the White House has been on the defensive on ethical issues and while Dole has been trying to define his own agenda--"we will have an agenda . . . and it will be my agenda,” he told an audience at an afternoon speech in San Francisco.

Dole aides did their best to put a happy spin on the candidate’s remarks.

“He’s the most upfront candidate I’ve ever run into,” campaign spokesman Nelson Warfield said. “You ask him a question, and he answers it. It’s all the more contrast with Bill Clinton.”

But Dole aides, who have been insisting their campaign did not intend to make tobacco a major issue, had been hoping in recent days that the controversy had run out of gas.

Instead, their candidate revived it--a move that is all the more unusual because, as he pointed out to Couric, he quit smoking himself and “lost my brother because he was a heavy smoker. He died of emphysema and the complication of a lot of other things. Cigarettes aren’t good for you.”

The tobacco issue trailed Dole to Madison, Wis., where his campaign plane stopped for fuel en route from Washington to California.

During what was supposed to be a discussion of welfare reform, Dole was asked whether he really thought Koop had been brainwashed. “Not brainwashed in a sense,” he replied, “but a little bit misled by the press.”

For his part, Koop declined to be drawn further into the debate. “The facts speak for themselves,” he said through a representative.

The issue continued to dog Dole in San Francisco, where anti-tobacco protesters demonstrated in front of the Sheraton Palace Hotel, the site of a $500-a-plate luncheon fund-raiser. Inside the hotel, Dole spoke about the importance of California to a November victory; Buttman, the now-ubiquitous human in a cigarette costume who has shown up at Dole campaign events for the last several weeks, paraded outside.

The political stakes in the battle over smoking could be substantial. A recent survey released by Time magazine and CNN found that 49% of Americans said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate committed to reducing access to tobacco for minors, while only 14% would be less likely.

Some Republicans believe Clinton’s efforts to restrict cigarette marketing will hurt him in the South. But Democrats argue that most of those Southern votes are lost to them anyway and believe their emphasis on combating teen smoking has strong support.

Dole initially sparked the tobacco confrontation with remarks on a swing through the South. Speaking with reporters last month in Kentucky, a leading tobacco-producing state, Dole questioned whether cigarette smoking is addictive.

“To some people, smoking is addictive,” he said. “To others, they can take it or leave it. Most people don’t smoke at all. I hope children never start.”

Campaigning the next day in Birmingham, Ala., Dole went further.

“We know it’s not good for kids [to smoke], but a lot of things aren’t good. Drinking’s not good; some would say milk’s not good,” he said.

Ever since, Dole has faced a drumbeat of criticism. Democrats, sensing a political gift, have criticized both his statements and his party’s receipt of money from the tobacco industry.

Although tobacco interests once contributed heavily to both parties--and still give considerable amounts of money to some Democrats, such as San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown--the industry’s giving has shifted sharply to Republicans since Clinton’s election.

Between 1993 and 1995, tobacco interests contributed $4.5 million to the Republicans compared to $800,000 to the Democrats, according to Federal Election Commission records.


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