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Where There's Smoke : On the Front Line With the Tobacco Lobby

August 24, 1986|BELLA STUMBO | Bella Stumbo is a Times staff writer.

Most Americans, polls show, now believe that cigarettes kill. Among other things, the surge on general's warning on cigarette packages tells them so in no uncertain terms. From the relatively mild warnings first mandated by Congress 21 years ago, a new, no-nonsense label flatly declares, "Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and may complicate pregnancy."

On the medical front, already glutted with reports damning cigarettes for precipitating everything from headaches to Buerger's disease (a circulatory ailment that can result in amputation of fingers, toes, even legs and arms), the bad news continues to pour in, seemingly without end. The latest findings suggest that smoking may even contribute to Alzheimer's disease (i.e., senility) in people as young as 48.

Still, some 55 million Americans continue to smoke.

And the Tobacco Institute is dedicated to helping them keep right on.

The institute, trade association for the nation's leading cigarette manufacturers, lobbies tirelessly to defeat local anti-smoking ordinances and restrictive congressional measures. On other, lesser fronts, it also vigorously resists all proposed regulation of vending machines or free street-corner cigarette sampling as a means of curbing juvenile smoking.

Accordingly, the Tobacco Institute is

routinely depicted by the anti-smoking forces as a rich, slick, venal operation, a bastion of oily, immoral fat cats, "hired guns" of the tobacco industry busy making bucks (big bucks--around 600 billion cigarettes are sold nationally each year) at the expense of human life. "Merchants of Death," as the American Lung Assn. puts it.

The Tobacco Institute bitterly objects that this is a calumny of the first order, that almost nobody ever tells its side of the story.

That side of the story begins in Washington, where the institute is headquartered.

T he institute's leading media spokesman, Scott Stapf, was dispatched to do the welcoming honors. He arrived at 7 a.m. at the Hay-Adams, one of Washington's grandest old hotels, just across a park from the White House. At that hour, the restaurant was mostly filled with well-tailored, carefully coiffed, middle-aged men, already deep into hushed discussions, their grave faces uniformly suggesting questions of national if not global consequence. Stapf was easy enough to spot as he stood on the threshold, mainly because he was the only guy in the place smoking a cigarette before breakfast.

Otherwise, as he hurried across this roomful of polished faces, he might have been mistaken for some visiting graduate student--a young man of only 28, maybe 30 pounds overweight, clad in a somewhat rumpled, nondescript mix of campus khaki, navy blazer, button-down collar and narrow tie.

Seating himself, Stapf laid his cigarette in an ashtray, then promptly lighted another. Upon realizing he had two burning at once, he colored slightly and hastily mashed out the first, oddly flustered at something so routine most serious smokers would have only laughed it off. Beneath the shimmering chandeliers, his forehead glistened as he prepared to brief yet another stranger on the importance of keeping America safe for the cigarette.

So much for the Tobacco Institute's stereotypical image. No slick, three-piece sophisticate here. Just another bright, ambitious young American anxious to make his mark on the world, a history major from Macalester College, St. Paul, Minn., who once excelled in debate club, grew up in a conservative family "fed up to here with government interference" and decided "that I wanted to become a spokesman for some industry under siege."

Siege he wanted, siege he got. Never before in its 102-year history has the modern cigarette industry been in such a tight corner, literally under assault from all sides.

At the state, county and municipal levels, anti-smoking ordinances, originating in Arizona and California in the early '70s, are now spreading across the country like a contagion, mainly because the anti-smoking forces have lately managed to marshal a mushrooming new army of nonsmokers to their cause by persuading them that they too are risking disease and death, merely by breathing the same air with smokers.

The menace has finally even reached the nation's largest city, where New York Mayor Ed Koch is proposing an anti-smoking ordinance tough enough to make those of San Francisco and Los Angeles look downright lame.

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