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Time to extinguish all cigarette ads

It's about time Washington started getting serious about cigarettes.

Friday, the Food and Drug Administration suggested it would like to regulate tobacco products, Congress permitting. The day before, Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders said advertising that appeals to teenagers should be curbed.

"The teenager gets an image," she said. "The tobacco companies get an addict."

She should have endorsed a total ban on cigarette advertising. As a big fan of the First Amendment, I don't say that lightly. But it must be said.

Our society doesn't allow advertising for cocaine, yet we allow advertising for cigarettes, which kill far more people. And now there's evidence that smoking hurts our children even before they are born.

A widely reported study in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week said the wispy hair on fetal heads showed residue of their mothers' smoking. Even when the mothers didn't smoke themselves but were around smokers, the telltale evidence showed up.

An equally disturbing report in the same issue of the Journal said cigarette smoking appears to be even more harmful to fetal development than cocaine, which until now has been regarded as the worst substance for pregnant women to abuse.

About 20 percent of pregnant women smoke cigarettes.

Dr. Theodore Slotkin, professor of pharmacology at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C., looked at all the studies that have been done and concluded that many of the harmful effects attributed to crack cocaine were more likely the fault of cigarettes. Eighty-five percent of the women who smoked crack during pregnancy also smoked cigarettes, he said.

The "whoop-de-do" about crack babies was overblown, he said. "We have directed our attention toward something that is a concern, but not as important a concern as the legal substance that's getting abused," Slotkin said.

Even Dr. Ira Chasnoff of Illinois University, the most-quoted expert on the dangers of crack cocaine in pregnancy, now says the danger of tobacco to a developing fetus is underestimated.

"If you look at the sheer numbers and the impact on general health, tobacco by far is a bigger player," Chasnoff said in the Journal.

If we wait until women get pregnant and then tell them to quit smoking, it's too late. The surgeon general's report said most smokers acquired the addiction by age 18. In America, more than 3-million teenagers smoke, with the average age for a first cigarette at 14{.

"The tragedy is this: One-third to one-half of young people who try cigarettes go on to be daily smokers," Elders said.

Our teenagers must be shown how ridiculous smoking is. They need to understand that while cigarettes' damage to them today may be limited to bad breath and lame lungs, they will suffer far worse tomorrow. They will also endanger their unborn children.

If it means spending money on a TV campaign aimed at teens, fine. If it means sponsoring rock concerts, bringing in young celebrities to deliver the smoking-is-dumb message, giving out T-shirts, whatever. Let's do it.

Plenty of money is available if we end the tobacco industry's subsidies for growing the product and advertising it. If that is not enough, we could slap a $2 a pack tax on cigarettes, since studies have shown that the higher the price, the fewer teens take up smoking.

The tobacco industry is a far worse threat to our children than the drug pushers we've warned them about. Speak up. We're suckers if we keep letting this happen.

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