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Cancer Diagnosis Prompts Downey to Switch Sides

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Morton Downey Jr. has gone from smokers’ rights advocate to anti-smoking crusader. Lung cancer can do that to you.

The abrasive, conservative ex-talk show host, a heavy smoker most of his 63 years, last month was found to have lung cancer. On Thursday--the day before the scheduled surgery he hopes will save his life--a contrite Downey described himself as “a sucker” and “a fool” as he joined executives of the American Lung Assn. at a Los Angeles news conference to unveil an anti-smoking TV spot featuring him and his young daughter.

Downey, until recently a board member of the National Smokers Alliance, also used the occasion to join the growing list of tobacco defectors--former industry scientists, lobbyists, cigarette models and others who have turned on the cigarette makers. He denounced the smokers’ alliance, the country’s most prominent smokers’ rights organization, as a “total front” for the tobacco industry.

The alliance, which receives funding from tobacco giants Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., is a “nothing organization” with minimal grass-roots support, Downey charged.

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It “was designed to frighten Congress into thinking” it had millions of active members, when in fact there are few, he said.

Told of Downey’s remarks, alliance Vice President Gary Auxier said: “If we are a front group at all, we are a front group for 3 million adult American smokers.”

As a TV talk master, Downey’s belligerent in-your-face style featured prodigious feats of smoking.

“I used a cigarette as a combat weapon, and I never gave much thought to the [chance] that this cigarette would most likely kill me,” Downey said.

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Twelve- and 13-year-old fans would ask him to autograph their cigarettes, Downey recalled.

“Was I part of the problem? You bet I was,” he said, adding that he wants to “do something for those kids along the way who I made think smoking was cool.”

Downey acknowledged that until recently, he thought the real problem was groups such as the lung association, making it harder for smokers to indulge their habit.

“I still think they’re zealots,” he said. But “I think I’m one of the zealots with them.”

Downey said he learned of his condition a month ago, when he was being treated for pneumonia. He said he already had undergone something of a conversion, quitting the alliance board in March.

In Downey’s letter of resignation to the alliance, he had described himself as “a person who is tragically addicted to smoking cigarettes.”

After hearing the industry’s denials that nicotine was addictive, Downey said he was “no longer confident that the information imparted by the tobacco manufacturers and the NSA reflects the truth.”

Uncharacteristically subdued as he delivered his mea culpa, Downey nonetheless appeared tanned and fit and punctuated his remarks with humor. He drew laughter when he introduced Robert J. McKenna Jr., his thoracic surgeon, as the “man I pray saves my life” and then quipped, “No pressure now,” as McKenna took the mike.

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McKenna said that of 180,000 new lung cancer victims each year in the United States, about 90% are smokers. He called smoking “the most common cause of diseases we can prevent.”

Lung association officials said they will offer the Downey anti-smoking spot nationwide as a public service announcement.

In the 30-second commercial, Downey, seated on a playground swing next to his young daughter, introduces himself as the “television tough guy” who “knew cigarettes could never hurt me.”

“Now I’ve got lung cancer, and I could die,” he says.

“What really bothers me is I won’t be around to see my 2 1/2-year-old to say, ‘No to smoking.’ ”


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