To his everlasting credit, the first major official act of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was the issuance of a report that linked smoking to nearly a third of all cancer deaths in the United States and called it the "most important public health issue of our time." Not long after that, the Reagan administration announced it was backing much more detailed labeling on cigarette packages, and not long after that, thanks to lobbying from the tobacco industry and the tobacco congressmen, the administration beat a hasty retreat and said the labeling still was being studied. Sic transit public health.
The language being considered on the labels would require warning of the increased danger of heart disease, lung cancer and emphysema; of hazards to pregnant women of miscarriage and birth deformities, and of the risk of addiction.
The tobacco industry, in a real triumph of doubletalk, is still arguing against strict labeling on the grounds that (a) you don't need it because everyone knows the dangers connected with smoking and (b) you shouldn't have tougher labels because there is no established causal link between smoking and disease, only some statistical "questions."
If you believe either of these arguments you probably also believe in the Easter Bunny, but since some 32 percent of the population is still smoking, there obviously are a lot of people who don't or won't recognize the dangers or who do believe in the Easter Bunny.
Among the worst offenders, it appears, are teen-age girls. Back in 1979, when Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano was conducting his war on smoking, he released statistics showing that cigarette smoking among teen-agers had dropped since 1974, although it had increased among teen-age girls, and that teen-age girls who smoked outnumbered teen-age boys who smoked. Bob Keeshan, the pre-dawn Captain Kangaroo, recently told a House health subcommittee that most teen-agers never would take the first puff if they knew how dangerous cigarettes could be, but that doesn't seem to be as true for girls as for boys.
While the Reagan administration is studying the labeling proposal it might consider including evidence I recently uncovered of a severe social hazard that might even dissuade the most hard-core aspirant to womanhood from smoking.
Not too long ago, my son and one of his friends were sitting in the living room discussing the evils of smoking. They announced, to a man, that they would never date a girl who smoked. Furthermore, they said, almost none of their friends smoked and almost none of their friends would go out with a girl who smoked. The reason had something to do with health hazards -- they know about the secondary effects of smoke on nonsmokers -- and my son's friend has recently been leaning so much on his own mother to quit that she is on her fourth day of withdrawal. But the most compelling reasons they would not date girls who smoked were much more basic, and the tobacco industry notwithstanding, quite indisputable. People who smoked smelled bad, they said. They have bad breath.
As one who started sneaking cigarettes at the age of 16 and continued smoking into my early 30s, I consider myself to have a certain expertise in this area. No one who hasn't been there can know how much is expected of a cigarette from a teen-age girl. That's not tobacco wrapped in that thin paper: It's sophistication, pizazz, style, glamour, and all that flows from the above, namely romance, marriage, and everlasting happiness.
Warnings about health hazards aren't going to prevail when weighed against the magical transformation cigarette smoking is supposed to produce in girls.
I submit that the teen-age boys may have come across something that will have impact on teen-age girls, something the tobacco industry can't possibly disprove, and something upon which the Health and Human Services Department ought to capitalize. Along with the labels about cigarettes causing cancer, heart problems, emphysema and birth defects, they should add a warning that cigarettes are a leading cause of smelly hair and halitosis. As an ex-teen-age girl, I can testify to the fact that future health hazards might not have persuaded me not to smoke, but the immediate threat of smelly hair, halitosis and incipient datelessness would have.
The tobacco industry wouldn't have had a chance.