Dear Ann Landers:

I am a Catholic priest who has served in Chicago for over 50 years. I am writing to you because I have a story to tell that warrants as much coverage as possible. I hope you will print my letter.

Recently, a woman came to see me because she was desperate and needed help. It seems that for the past three years, she had been paying $80 every payday on a $400 loan. On another loan of $200, she had been paying $40 every payday for the past year. This amounted to over 500 percent interest annually. The woman is working two jobs--as an office clerk during the day and at a drugstore in the evening. She has a family to support, and was truly desperate.

I was able to scrape together $720, so she could pay off both loans and the interest. Need I tell you the measure of her gratitude and relief.

Spokespersons for these loan-shark operations will say they are helping the poor get cash when nobody else will loan them money. Well, "helping," indeed. At that outrageous rate of interest, those operators are hardly helping the poor. The reality is, they are chaining these hapless individuals to perpetual poverty.

The loan sharks are making so much money, they can (and do) make generous contributions to legislators who otherwise might vote to curtail their activities. Decent people in our state should rise up and demand that these loan enterprises either be better regulated or put out of business.

--The Rev. John J. Egan,

Chicago

Thank you for a letter that will surely open millions of eyes, not only in Chicago but elsewhere. I printed a similar letter a while back about loan companies that advertise on TV by saying, "If you are a homeowner . . . "--which, I explained, means if you fail to meet your payments, they will end up with your home.

So, again I say, dear readers, if you are desperate for money, try relatives and friends first, next, your bank, but stay away from loan sharks who advertise on TV, in newspapers, on billboards or anywhere else.

Dear Ann Landers:

I have been dating an attractive woman for several months, and we have a good relationship. There is one big problem, however. "Lucinda" smokes more than a pack of cigarettes a day.

When we first began dating, I told her I did not want to be in the company of anyone who smokes. After that, she did not smoke around me, in my car nor in my home. Lately, however, to my surprise, Lucinda has been lighting up in my presence. I offered her a financial incentive to quit (big bucks), and she did for two months. After I paid her the money, she started to smoke again. This woman keeps promising to quit, and then goes back on her word. Her mother has emphysema, and I expect that eventually she will too.

My doctor says that, considering my age and medical history, passive smoke inhalation could be dangerous. Therefore, as long as Lucinda smokes, I will not consider marrying her. I have tried all forms of persuasion, but I am now convinced that she will never quit. I have decided to stop seeing her altogether if she does not quit by November. Am I being cruel? What would you advise in such a situation?

--Undecided Somewhere in Tennessee

Dump her now. Marriage would be a constant battle. Take her back only if she manages on her own to quit smoking for three months, and promises to stay off cigarettes permanently. If she goes back on her word, start looking for a tobacco-free woman.

Questions may be sent to: Ann Landers, c/o Creators Syndicate, 5777 W. Century Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, Calif. 90045.

(c) 1999, Creators Syndicate