PEOPLE SAY what's all the excitement about, with Secretary Californo's new war on smoking.

Ah. That is because they have not noticed the republic is collapsing from slow suicide.

We owe the curse of tobacco to the American Indian, of course, and you would think somebody before now would have brought a group action against them for damages. Instead or trying to get the state of Maine in exchange for "injustices" they say they have suffered, the Indians really should be raising a war chest to pay some of the billions of dollars damage their weed has done.

They smoked it, as everyone knows, in their "peace pipes." They thought it promoted peace. Ha.

They also thought it had enormous medicinal value, and the rapid spread of tobacco in Europe (France and England both in the 1500s) was because people thought it healed them.

But King James 1, as early as 1605, said nonsense, tobacco was bad for the brain and the lungs as well, and didn't cure anybody of anything.

For all that, it was the foundation of the American economy in the early 1600s (1612 and 1619 are bothe important years in the tobacco industry of Virginia).

Things fumed along for a few centuries, with an occasional thunderbolt here, and occasional paean there, but nobody seems to have paid much attention.

And then in our own century we produced, right here in America, Emma F. Angell Drake, Ms. Drake saw clearly that tobacco was not merely a bad habit but a pervasive ruin.

Women in her day (1908) did not smoke, except those women who are forever doing what nobody else does, so at first Emma had some trouble explaining why ho so many babies died or were born sickly and puny:

"Many wives are struggling along," she said, "in ill health that is directly traceable to the inhaling, night after night, of the breath of the husband poisoned by nicotine."

The husband smoked a cigar after supper, and all night long exhaled through his membranous surfaces this toxin into the air, and the poor wife breathed it in, and the baby was still-born and this was an outrage that Emma F. Angell Drake Proposed to ameliorate.

She proposed separate bedrooms, even for the lower classes, who as a rule did not have a lot of bedrooms to spare, but first things first.

"There should be no pandering to sexual indulgence," she warned wives in her "What a Young Wife Should Know" (Vir Publishing Co., Philadelphia 1908).

Yet sad experience had showed her that even with separate bedrooms the wife sometimes got pregnant.

At least, as she pointed out, the poor woman would then have nine months of freedom away from the beast and his poisonous fumes. Needless to say (she said) the husband should not be allowed in the wife's bedroom on any pretext during this period.

The children of Italy, she went on, all look like Jesus because their mothers meditate all the time on those lovely Madonnas (Raphael, Leonardo, etc.) and the American wife should think always of beautiful things like Greek sculpture. That way, if I understood Emma right, the baby would not look like the stinking beast that sired it.

But the barbaric smoke-belching husband, to get back to him, was not always entirely to blame. No.

"Women themselves, by many little carelessnesses and thoughtless acts, invite attentions" which must, needless to say, be "repelled."

Now there is another thing. Tobacco is not the only cause of infant deformity and death. "Various headache powders, anti-constipation teas" are bad for women and, along with inhaling their husband's fumes, do damage:

They have "wrecked many a little lifeboat," she warned, "before it weighed anchor.

Nor is that all:

"Mothers, do you dream what you may be doing when you use brandy and wine in your cookery, or beer to improve a Welsh rarebit?"

Well, in case you don't know it, she was sorry to say, you are giving your little ones an insatiable taste for alcohol and in no time they will be hanged and you will be standing there at the gallows saying alas for the day you put the sherry in the soup.

Unfortunately the insights of this neglected author were not made the rock of American public policy in 1908. But all honor to the far-seeing minds who endorsed all she said at the time. The president of Brown University was one of them. The president of the Woman's Medical Assn. was another.

The minister of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church was yet another of those who all came forth with testimonials, in the front of Emma's book, to the great crusade she was leading.

We may conclude that smoking is a curse of the past, thanks to the HEW policy. But there remain one or two little problems - and I believe the matter of abortion has also been enunciated by the government's Health, Education and Welfare Department as well - but we should now get on to those headache powders, constipation pills, and beer in the Welsh rarebit.

If we do aspirin next year and laxatives the year after and shut down the restaurants the year after that then the health and morals of the nation should be all right for a time.

Now the excitement about Secretary Califano, to get back to the original question, is that virtue, for a change, is moving into the councils of state. I do not think, by the way, that meditating on Madonnas makes your kids look like Jesus, but I do think the Secretary is a handsome fellow.