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A no-smoking, drug-tolerating White House

Right now, the most stigmatized behavior in America may be cigarette smoking. Not unprotected sex that spreads AIDS. Not the scourge of illegal drugs that destroys lives, families and neighborhoods. The war on smoking, which causes health problems and even death, is an obsession with elected officials, including litigious governors and state attorneys general, even the president of the United States. Just ask Bob Dole, the Republican presidential standard-bearer, what it feels like to be caught on the wrong side of this issue.

The battle against tobacco is worth waging, but we should be careful about trying to portray smoking as just another drug addiction. Anti-smoking zealots have equated cigarettes with mind-altering drugs, leading young people to conclude that the marijuana they smoke or the cocaine they sniff is about the equivalent of their parents lighting up a Camel. Such an attitude is insane, and it makes it more difficult to combat the illegal drug problem. Classify tobacco as an addictive drug, but don't suggest that it's in the same category as hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. Don't blur the line between what's legal and what's not. Think of the message this sends our children.

The tobacco industry is in retreat, and it's time for President Clinton and other leaders now to focus at least as much attention on the growing menace illegal drug use poses to society. They should start by admitting the obvious _ that the so-called war on drugs waged by recent presidential administrations has been a colossal failure.

If anything, the problem is getting worse. Hospital emergency rooms are straining to treat drug users, many of them teenagers. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, marijuana use among 14- and 15-year-olds is up 200 percent since 1992. Among 12- and 13-year-olds, it has risen 137 percent. Unfortunately, marijuana use often leads to more potent drugs and addiction. Heroin, cheap and pure, is making a big comeback.

We are going to need more than tough law enforcement, drug education and compassionate rehabilitation programs to win this fight. Somehow, society has to muster the will to send a clear message that illegal drugs will not be tolerated. It's time we make celebrity drug users, including professional athletes, rock stars, and yes, even White House staffers, pay a price for their destructive behavior. That means athletes like Dallas Cowboys player Michael Irvin, who pleaded no contest to felony cocaine possession charges last week, should be given his walking papers, not a slap on the wrist. Hollywood recording studios should adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward rock musicians, yanking lucrative recording contracts from any band whose members can't just say no to the lethal junk of the drug culture. And Clinton, of all people, needs to set a tougher example. People with a recent history of serious drug abuse have no business working in a White House that bans smoking.

Unfortunately, athletes too often get off with a fine amounting to less than a monthly cocaine bill and brief suspensions from their game. Young recording artists continue to die from overdoses while the music industry turns a blind eye. And, as we learned last week, a dozen people in the Clinton White House were granted permanent passes despite the Secret Service's concerns about their "recent" use of illegal drugs, including crack cocaine and potent hallucinogens.

The Secret Service dropped its objections after the White House agreed to set up a program requiring presidential aides with serious drug problems to be tested twice a year. We are not talking about a president who didn't inhale, or people who smoked marijuana 10 or 20 years ago. We are talking about presidential appointees who were serious drug abusers.

Craig Livingstone until recently was the head of the White House personnel security office, which was in charge of obtaining FBI background checks on White House employees. Livingstone resigned after it was disclosed that his office had improperly requested and received FBI files on hundreds of Republicans who no longer were in government.

It turns out that the Secret Service had raised security questions about Livingstone, who has acknowledged past drug use. He got the job anyway.

White House press secretary Michael McCurry, who told reporters he had occasionally smoked marijuana in the 1970s, said that "prior drug use is not a bar to employment" in this administration. But once hired, White House employees must maintain a drug-free lifestyle or face immediate dismissal. He tried to shrug off the congressional investigation of drug abuse by White House staffers as another attempt to embarrass the president in an election year.

Well, Clinton should be embarrassed. Testing people with a history of drug abuse twice a year is not nearly enough. They should be tested at least once a month. More to the point, the White House should simply have closed the door on any job applicant with a history of extensive or recent drug use. Clearly, drug use was no big deal among this White House staff.

So the next time Clinton climbs up on his anti-smoking soapbox, let him explain to our teenagers why drug use doesn't disqualify anyone from working for the president of the United States. This is the message that has been missing from the war on drugs.