If there is one thing on Elaine Crispen's White House desk that she isn't proud of, it's the ashtray. The press secretary for Nancy Reagan, a first lady who has made drug abuse her No. 1 issue, admits that she is "hooked" on cigarettes.
Crispen has tried and failed to quit. Not even her college daughter's cheery threats -- "I'm not staying in the house this Christmas if you're still smoking"; not even the memory of the president's disapproval of a loaded ashtray: "tsk, tsk" -- have helped her finally to kick the habit.
But finding an addict among the warriors against drug abuse in the White House, especially teen-age drug abuse, isn't that surprising. Yes, the National Institute on Drug Abuse ranks tobacco as the most lethal and the most addictive of all drugs. The American Psychiatric Association lists the inability to quit as a "tobacco dependence disorder." The American Medical Association is calling for a ban on all cigarette advertising.
Still, tobacco is not usually thought of as a drug with a capital D. We do not think of Lucky Strikes and smack, of Vantage and crack, of Marlboros and cocaine, of Virginia Slims and LSD in the same vein. We do not think of Elaine Crispen and a drug addict in the same way either. So tobacco has yet to win a place of honor where it really belongs: on the first lady's hit list.
In private, Nancy Reagan has spoken out. As her press secretary says, "Mrs. Reagan knows smoking isn't good. I know she encourages friends to quit." In public, she has come only as close as the foreword to a book on marijuana: "My primary purpose in this battle against drugs is to draw attention to the problem, to make people aware and get them involved. . . . The wall of denial has surrounded the issue of drug abuse too long." I can't imagine a better introduction to the topic of teen-age tobacco addiction.
Tobacco is not illegal. Tobacco is not intoxicating. Tobacco doesn't cause immediate harm. You do not have to become a pusher or prostitute or mugger to support a cigarette habit.
And yet tobacco does destroy lives. To some, such as William Pollin, the former chair of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, cigarettes are a "gateway" into the hard-core drug world. But on its own, tobacco was related to 350,000 American deaths last year -- deaths that started at an early age.
Over 95 percent of smokers begin puffing before they are 21, most in junior high, before they have the judgment to say no or the vision to see their own mortality. Smoking, it is true, is becoming extinct among a young elite: only 5 per- cent of the incoming freshmen at Harvard and 2 percent of those at Dartmouth smoke -- but in the same age group, one out of every five is still puffing away. The numbers alone may make tobacco seem like a "normal habit." Glamorous ads push this drug unceasingly. But the White House has its own glamour and Nancy Reagan has greater name recognition than Benson & Hedges.
What a remarkable counter-ad she could be. Her current drug-abuse program warning about uppers and downers has reached an audience wider than those who sell longs and slims. She has a logical and remarkable chance to affect national health, just by telling the truth, just by talking about tobacco as another drug and about smokers as drug abusers.
Have I forgotten about politics and the power of tobacco lobbies? Not at all. But lately, the tobacco companies have begun to sound like emphysema patients. They can barely yell; they need all their energy to keep breathing. Today the public image of the tobacco lobby is just a notch above that of the street-corner pusher. I don't believe that smoking is too "controversial" for a president's wife.
This is the first lady, after all, who said: "I am not an authority on drugs, but I do care about young people and I don't think we can afford to lose a generation of our young people to chemicals." Nor can we afford to lose another generation in the ashes. Tobacco, Nancy. Add it to the list.