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Churches are strangely quiet in the fight against tobacco.

America's churches traditionally have worked to enact legislation that curbs addiction to dangerous substances. The efforts of Protestants to eradicate alcohol were successful for a dozen years but were then set aside. Church-sponsored campaigns against state-controlled gambling were successful until states recently caved in to widespread resistance to higher taxes. To raise money, many states subsequently sanctioned various forms of gambling. The unfortunate result can be seen in the vast numbers of new gambling addicts.

For reasons that are not clear, churches have not mounted a collective campaign against the use of tobacco. It is a crusade long overdue--and winnable. The appalling effects of smoking cannot be recited often enough. Every year, 360,000 people die prematurely of cancer or other diseases caused or aggravated by smoking, almost 1,000 funerals every day offer dramatic proof of the need for drastic remedies.

The drumbeat of progress to curb smoking continues to be impressive. But are the initiatives moving fast enough? The number of smokers has dropped to 52 million, but all of us are victims of others' smoke. Even worse, America's youth are being captivated by the seductive ads of the cigarette industry. The time has long since arrived to ban ads in the printed media for tobacco products -- as they are in the electronic media.

Although there are First Amendment arguments against suppressing tobacco ads, there are eminent legal scholars who declare that Congress can forbid all advertisements for cigarettes. The tobacco industry would probably find other outlets for its $2 billion annual budget for advertising, but at least the government lesson that tobacco is evil would be clear.

Church agencies are helping the government in programs designed to eliminate, and educate people about, drugs. They also help organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers discourage the abuse of alcohol. But the National Institute on Drug Abuse has reported that the nicotine in tobacco is "six to eight times more addicting than alcohol."

America's tobacco industry, furthermore, disgraces the name of the United States by its active campaign to get millions in the Third World addicted to tobacco. The World Health Organization has said repeatedly that tobacco is the largest preventable cause of sickness in the world. Death from tobacco accounts for at least 5 percent of all deaths in developing nations. Congress also could heavily tax all tobacco products. It could follow the examples of California and Massachusetts by increasing sharply the tax on cigarettes. In November 1992, Massachusetts voters approved a tax on cigarettes that will bring in more than $100 million a year. If Congress raised the tax on cigarettes to Canada's level -- about $3 a pack -- it would raise $35 billion a year!

Congress also could insist that the warning now placed on all cigarette packages be placed on tobacco products shipped abroad. The federal government also could educate or even 'expose' American companies that are trying to contaminate the lives of millions abroad by persuading them to use a substance that has no redeeming features.

Church-related groups have unprecedented opportunities to work together for the enhancement of public morality. The old intercreedal tensions have eroded, the threat of communism has disappeared, and the social problems that will be responsive to education and law enforcement are more clearly defined.

So what are the churches doing to prevent the death of 1,000 people a day? The answer is not clear. But the opportunity to do something creative and constructive is clear. The churches could add great power and prestige to the crusade of public health and environmental groups, such as the American Medical Association, that are working with some success to curb America's addiction to nicotine.

If the churches acted, history might record that in the first 1,000 days of the Clinton administration, America finally stopped the madness of having 1,000 funerals a day because of smoking.
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Author:Drinan, Robert F.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 15, 1993
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