A public relations-minded drug chain sponsored an anti-cancer show on TV the other day. It was rionic. The same health-minded company, this self-described foe of colon cancer, promotes lung cancer -- by pushing cigarettes.
The Weed (T.W.) is everywhere: drugstores, gas stations, 7-Elevens, vending machines, including some near schools.
To discourage addiction to T.W., the American Medical Association has just called for a ban on all cigarette ads.
We can't outlaw tobacco itself, of course, lest it become to the '80s what whiskey was to the Capone era. Still, more Americans than ever are exhaling against T.W.
So here I'll push a once-wild idea -- the possibility of yanking tobacco off the drugstore shelves and limiting its sales to special stores. They would be like some states' ABC liquor stores, but with several big differences:
*The stores wouldn't just sell the product in question. They'd also offer stop-smoking drugs, counseling and classes -- aggressively working to discourage tobacco use.
*In line with Reagan-era sentiments, the government could contract out the stores' operation to corporations, including perhaps some of the same "health-minded" drug chains that now are profiting off tobacco.
*The government would pay hefty bonuses to the store operators -- not by how many Virginia Slims they moved, but by how many addicts they unhooked from The Weed.
To use the stores, smokers would have to register. Yes, a privacy question exists, but we're dealing with a life-and-death issue that's even bigger than the drunk driving one. And it's just as public. Smokers can befoul the lungs of nonsmokers, including coworkers, not merely spouses and kids; and one way or another, T.W.-related ailments may kill as many as half a million Americans a year -- perhaps 10 times the number of all traffic deaths and 15 times those from illegal drugs. At the least, T.W. kills 300,000 annually.
What's more, since adult smoking in most cases is a rather open habit, there normally isn't any privacy to defend. And the law could ban use of smoker registration records by, say, the IRS, while stiffly penalizing snoopy insurance companies that made unauthorized use of the records.
At the same time, if registrants wanted, the system could prove that they had stopped smoking and thus were eligible for life insurance with nonsmokers' discounts.
How could it do this? A national computer system would record each registrant's tobacco purchases.
In the cases of transients, the government might fix up the system to give bonus credits to the stores in the areas where they had spent the most time.
Yes, many "formers" do relapse. The system, however, just as with cancer statistics, might not include "cures" that lasted less than five years.
The same system would also flag large purchases, so the government could fight illegal resellers. Moreover, Uncle Sam could reduce the possibility of a black market by forbidding price-gouging.
With such a rule, the system also would be less onerous to the nicotine-addicted poor than would quadrupled tobacco taxes. Ideally a nico-dict won't have to cheat his children of necessities to finance his Marlboros.
This isn't to say we'd necessarily lower tobacco taxes: they might stay at their present levels. And if collections fell as a result of the anti-smoking efforts? So be it. Who says governments have an inalienable right to profit forever off the deaths of their citizens? Besides, tobacco tax revenue is a fraction of the $50-100 billion that smoking costs America in hospital bills, sick leave and other ways.
But what to call the new-style tobacco stores?
Why not "Lung Stores"? You can't buy a new pair of lungs, alas, but if the name reminded the customers of what's at stake here, well so much the better.
If Congress doesn't like this proposal, it should at least make the Food and Drug Administration regulate tobacco as a drug. "Tobacco is more dangerous than alcohol, more dangerous than birth control pills," said John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). And yet a federal court in 1980 rejected Banzhaf's request that the FDA regulate the cigarette industry. More than a decade ago he suggested that tobacco be sold just at drug stores -- or ABC-like stores -- and be available only when accompanied by medical guidance. If nothing else, he said, cities and other jurisdictions should ban cigarette vending machines: "Any kid tall enough to reach up to the coin slot can buy something more dangerous than alcohol or birth control pills."
Ideally, however, such helpful actions will be just intermediate steps. The real answer is Lung Stores, so retail tobacco sellers will have a powerful financial incentive to unhook the addicted.
Lung Stores needn't be a pipe dream. Consider all the hundreds of millions of dollars and the bureaucracy associated with tobacco price supports over the years. Already people have said, "Let's think about spending some of it to wean farmers off tobacco." Indeed! But let's not neglect the smokers, either.