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
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. …