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Obama Signs Tobacco Control Act. Is He Cleaning Up His Own Act With Cigarettes?

Does he or doesn't he? Sarah Louise Wiggins, 9, of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids watches as President Obama signs the smoking prevention act.
Does he or doesn't he? Sarah Louise Wiggins, 9, of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids watches as President Obama signs the smoking prevention act. (Kevin Lamarique -- Reuters)

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Super double special irony alert! President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act into law yesterday, hailing it in a Rose Garden ceremony as "an extraordinary accomplishment" that will "save American lives and make Americans healthier."

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Well, let's hope so. But doesn't "healthier" start at home? Wouldn't this be the same President Obama who still has a little tobacco habit of his own?

It's hard to know for sure, because everyone at the White House acts like a kid caught smoking when the subject comes up, but it appears that Obama is the first president in decades to smoke cigarettes while in office. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush fired up the occasional cigar and Laura Bush was known to bum a smoke now and then, but you have to go back to Franklin Roosevelt and his signature cigarette holder to find a confirmed smoker in chief (Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Nixon were all the subject of conflicting reports).

Obama has admitted that he started smoking as a teenager and that he has "struggled" with it for years. When the campaign began, he promised his wife, Michelle, that he'd quit. "I was never really a heavy smoker," he told Men's Health magazine for its November issue. "Probably at my peak I was smoking seven or eight a day. There have been a couple of times during the campaign when I fell off the wagon and bummed one."

Since then, however, Obama and his aides have put up a bit of a smoke screen when the subject is mentioned. Smoking, after all, doesn't exactly comport with Obama's much-documented image as a pec-baring body-surfer.

He wouldn't give a direct answer when asked by Barbara Walters in a post-election interview in November, saying instead that, as president, "you're not perfect, but hopefully you're trying to set a good example for people, and that starts with my two kids."

Tom Brokaw tried again on "Meet the Press" in December and got this: "What I would say is, is that I have done a terrific job, under the circumstances, of making myself much healthier, and I think that you will not see any violations of these rules in the White House."

The "in-the-White-House" construction merely thickened the plot. Smoking was banned inside the Executive Mansion during the Clinton administration. But that doesn't rule out all the other places where a president could take a few drags.

The White House offered a little more haze 10 days ago when reporters asked press secretary Robert Gibbs for an update on the does-he-or-doesn't-he question. Gibbs wouldn't say exactly. "I would simply tell you I think struggling with a nicotine addiction is something that happens every day," he replied.

Richard Wolffe, who covered Obama's campaign for Newsweek, recalls several encounters with the candidate in which he smelled strongly of tobacco. Not clear proof of smoking -- the odor could have been a result of being in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms -- but certainly part of circumstantial evidence for a tobacco habit.

"The thing about [his] smoking is you never had concrete proof," says Wolffe, whose new book about Obama, "Renegade: The Making of a President," leaves this vice alone. Obama's handlers, he said, "did an amazing job of making sure that no one had any photographic proof."

Of course, there might be a few reasons why not kicking butts is a good idea. As writer Ron Rosenbaum has pointed out in Slate, do we really want a president who, faced with a nuclear crisis, remains in an irritable mood, with no relief for his nicotine needs? Nicorette gum? Is gum what you reach for in the midst of a Dr. Strangelove moment?

The president was no more specific yesterday as he signed a bill that will further regulate the marketing and manufacturing of cigarettes, including giving the Food and Drug Administration new powers to restrict the amount of tar and nicotine. Noting that one in five teenagers leaves high school as a smoker, Obama said: "I know because I was one of those teenagers. I know how hard it can be to break this habit when it has been with you for a long time."

For a guy with a smoking past and maybe present, Obama's blindingly white smile made reporters wonder whether they should be focused on the coverup and not the crime. So the question hung in the air for the assembled news types, all of whom are doubtless paragons of perfect health and fitness themselves. "Mr. President, how difficult has your struggle with smoking been?" shouted CNN's Dan Lothian from the behind the rope line, as Obama worked the sweltering Rose Garden crowd a few feet away.

Obama turned his head toward Lothian, and then returned to working the line, without offering a verbal response.

Some of the president's invited guests at yesterday's ceremony offered a charitable view.

"Who knows better than a smoker how difficult it is to quit?" asked David Kessler, who headed the FDA under the Clinton administration. "He's struggled with this. It's always difficult."

"He's an adult and knows the dangers," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a longtime anti-tobacco crusader. Waxman knows how tough quitting can be: He smoked on and off for 15 years. "As the president said, the most important thing we can do now is stop kids from starting. I was a dumb 16-year-old when I started. If you make it to adulthood without smoking, you're not likely to start."


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