Sharp Criticism Puts Tobacco Industry on the Political Ropes Capitol Hill Critics Say Companies Spike Cigarettes, Lure Youths

Article excerpt

THE $50 billion American tobacco industry is doing a slow burn.

Hounded by critics, major tobacco companies are battling a series of embarrassing charges. Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, a leading opponent of the industry, claims that manufacturers spike cigarettes with extra nicotine, lure young people into smoking, and suppress unfavorable research.

Tobacco industry leaders flatly deny every charge. They accuse Mr. Waxman of mounting an effort to ban the sale of cigarettes in the United States and to drive them out of business.

Caught in the middle of all this are 46 million American smokers who puff 500 billion cigarettes every year. Under growing criticism, many smokers feel besieged and unwelcome in offices, restaurants, and even their own homes, where lighting up has increasingly become taboo.

The chorus of complaints reflects a gradual, but profound, change in public attitudes since World War II, when cigarettes were shipped to American troops overseas to boost their morale.

Lawmakers have tightened the screws on the industry, especially in the past two decades. Today the federal government requires health warning labels on packages and in advertising.

Governments impose over $13 billion a year in federal, state, and local excise taxes (partly to discourage consumption). And laws restrict smoking in more and more public places, even some open-air ballparks.

Yet Waxman, a former smoker, remains unsatisfied. "We know they can take the nicotine out," the congressman says. "Let's require them to take it out. If we're going to leave nicotine in to any extent, we ought to have a warning label...that would say, `Warning: Nicotine is addictive.' "

In fact, cigarette companies say they can remove the nicotine using a process similar to that used by decaffeinated coffeemakers. In the 1980s, Phillip Morris U.S.A., the nation's largest tobacco firm, spent $350 million to research, promote, and start production of a nicotine-free cigarette.

William Campbell, president of Phillip Morris, says the nicotine-free product failed because smokers found the taste flat. "Nicotine seems to have an impact that's like carbonation in a soda," he says.

Waxman considers nicotine the critical element in his struggle with cigarettemakers. If Congress can be convinced that nicotine is addictive, much like heroin and cocaine, then tobacco might be brought under much tighter federal regulation.

To bolster his case, the congressman cites a 1988 report by the Surgeon General on the health consequences of smoking. …