Once they're out of the package, the thin pink ribbons don't look menacing. They're simple, two-inch-long strips of bubble gum. They taste like the gum that kids have been chewing since the year one.

But clumps of the gum are being sold in paper pouches under the brand name "Big League Chew." There is no question that this product is being pitched to kids so they can pretend that they're chewing a wad of tobacco.

What's wrong with that? Everything, if you ask me, and if you ask several other horrified parents, one of whom is Madelaine Waltjen of Chevy Chase.

Madelaine recently came across a display of Big League Chew near the cash registers at the Toys-R-Us store in Rockville. "With all the warnings lately about mouth cancer in young children (caused by chewing tobacco), this item seems totally inappropriate," Madelaine writes.

Almost as bad is the picture of an especially rough-tough football player on the "Big League Chew" package. The linkage in a kid's mind between sports star and product is awfully strong. It isn't hard to imagine a 6-year-old stuffing a chaw of tobacco into his mouth 10 years from now and telling himself, "Football stars do it, so it must be okay."

In fact, here's what will happen to you if you chew tobacco, kiddies. It ain't touchdowns.

"The use of smokeless tobacco has been shown to cause oral-pharyngeal cancer," says the April 17 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine. "The strongest link is with cancers of the cheek and gum. White mucosal lesions are found in 18 to 64 percent of the users, often at the site where the tobacco was held."

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says that Big League Chew is "a contender" for the "food porn award" that is awarded each month by his agency's publication, Nutrition Action Headliner.

"I wouldn't push it too far; candy cigarettes have been around much longer," Jacobson noted. " But it's a reflection of the intellectual caliber of American industry . . . . The icing on the cake is that it actually encourages kids to open the pouch and put this stuff in their mouths."

Ron Reems, vice president of Marketing for Amurol Products Co., the Naperville, Ill., manufacturer of Big League Chew, declined to comment. But that isn't going to make reactions like Madelaine Waltjen's go away. And it isn't going to make it any easier to explain to kids that "innocent" bubble gum may lead to an illness that's none too innocent.

Here is the whole truth and nothing but from Susan N. Wiener of Southeast. Any driver who recognizes himself in the following description is hereby invited to clean up his act.

"I have found that using the turn signal is the surest way to ruin your chances to change lanes safely," Susan writes.

"Why? Because it is the signal for the cars in the fast lane to move up but fast -- lest you or I pull in front of them!

"It may simply be a deep-seated instinct of human nature, not yet evolved from the primitive state, but well over 90 percent of the drivers I have encountered in the next lane have taken my signal of intent to change (sometimes just my careful glances in the mirror) as their signal to zip past me . . . .

"This happens on the turnpikes (66 and all of the 95s), major highways, any road wide enough for at least two lanes to head in the same direction. It happens in rush, non-rush, and practically idle hours, and in every local jurisdiction . . . .

"I really don't mind who pulls ahead of me on the road. But using turn signals often turns an attempt at a safe lane change into the Kentucky Derby home stretch."

Feeling guilty, you horsy speeder-uppers? You should.

Here's proof positive that a guilty conscience never mends.

Patricia Pei of Reston writes that when her grandparents eloped back in 1920, her grandfather, Milo Begor of Hampton, Va., borrowed $75 from a friend to pay for the honeymoon. "As his 85th birthday approaches," writes Patricia, "it has been on his mind that he never repaid his debt.

"All we know about this gentleman is that his name is Wilbur C. Bruce, he was in the 19th Airship Company at Langley [Va.] Field in 1920, and he is believed to have returned to Michigan after leaving the Army."

I've directed Patricia to the military records center in Indianapolis, to see if they know what happened to Milo Begor's benefactor of long, long ago.

But just in case a longshot is looking for a chance to come in, do any readers know the appropriate Wilbur Bruce, or how to get in touch with him?