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Living with peddlers of early death

When you watch an old movie, it seems that everyone in it smokes. Smoking was sexy. It was social. It was sophisticated. Celebrities touted certain cigarette brands. Giving free smokes to soldiers was considered patriotic. But things have changed. Smokers now stand at the side doors of office buildings to smoke. They sit at picnic tables around back, near the trash bins. They duck out the freight door so they can get back inside more quickly after a puff.

The where and when of smoking is regulated by employers. Restaurants may segregate smokers; non-smokers may shun them. State law says they must refrain from smoking altogether in much of the great indoors.

Health experts tell smokers that despite tobacco's legal sale, it is a drug more addictive than heroin.

Here in Florida, the governor wants to collect 19 cents more state tax on the sale of each pack of cigarettes, which already costs almost $2. That would place Florida's cigarette tax at 43 cents a pack, highest in the country.

This Sunday, smoking will be banned on all airline flights of less than six hours' duration, which includes virtually all flights within the continental United States.

Big changes. And largely, they've come about because medical science learned what tobacco smoking was doing to our health. How it was crippling and killing us.

So now we finally have this deadly habit on the wane. Cigarette smoking has declined at a rate of almost 2 percent per year since 1982.

Yet one tobacco giant, watching the number of smokers shrink and desperate to recruit new addicts, continues to claw at the fabric of society, hoping to identify specific groups that it can still victimize.

Like jackals, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company is trying to cut out of the herd those individuals who may be more easily convinced to smoke because of educational, cultural or social disadvantage. Statistics show these groups are young people, blue-collar workers, blacks and women, and Reynolds knows all the statistics. It knows these groups are more likely to start smoking and more reluctant to quit.

Studies already show that children smoke at an earlier age than previously, perhaps influenced by free cigarette samples passed out at rock concerts and by cigarette company sponsorship of sports events. In 1988, 18.1 percent of all high school seniors smoked daily.

Only weeks ago, Reynolds, whose parent company reports billions in annual operating income from tobacco, was forced by public outcry to drop a campaign for a new menthol cigarette called Uptown that it had intended to market to blacks. The cigarette was to be introduced in Philadelphia, a city 40 percent black.

And this past week, the company was busy defending itself against blistering criticism of its newest marketing gambit, a product called Dakota that supposedly would appeal to women 18 to 24. These women are characterized by no education past high school, a preference for leisure-time activities such as "cruising," "partying" and attending tractor pulls, a chief aspiration of getting married in their early 20s and a concept of a good time that amounts to the girl being "with her boyfriend and doing whatever he is doing."

"I'm outraged," Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan said Tuesday about the Dakota brand. "No one believes the tobacco companies when they say they are not targeting young people."

I know I don't. And until their peddling of death is finally ruled against the law _ as it surely must eventually be _ the least we can do for ourselves and our children is keep track of what they are up to.

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