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WAKE ME WHEN THE TOBACCO NIGHTMARE ENDS

I recently had a dream/nightmare in which an emaciated young couple with two hunger-crazed children are roaring down a dirt road in a jalopy, and in a cloud of their cigarette smoke.

The two 19-year-olds had just paid $12 ($11.95 in taxes) for a pack of cigarettes and thus had no money with which to buy food that might silence the hunger pains of their kids.

Furthermore, the teen-age parents were on the lam, fugitives from the now-huge posse of "revenuers" who were at war with America's nicotine black marketers.

The teen-agers are desperate to get to almost any other country, because almost everywhere else people young and old are puffing away their days -- and lives -- on nicotine-powered tobacco pellets, most subsidized at least indirectly by the United States government.

This awful "dream" took place in the midst of the speech last week in which President Clinton said nothing to move America closer to a solution of its tobacco tragedy.

All the president did was wring his hands about the 4.5 million children aged 12 to 17 who are now hooked on cigarettes and may become the new fugitives. He said that the recent "compromise" between the tobacco industry and several state attorneys general and other public forces is not good enough because it offers insufficient protection to tomorrow's children.

It looks as though the president was simply saying, "We've finally got big tobacco on the run. Now we're going to stall until they really capitulate."

But what does capitulate really mean for this president? He did not deal straightforwardly with the issue of plainly outlawing tobacco products with nicotine content even though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may say that nicotine is an addictive drug. Is he afraid to go that far because of our history with alcohol?

Clinton dodged the truth that as long as addictive tobacco products are legally available, no matter how high the taxes and overall cost, American teens will buy them -- even at the cost of their bodies or of obtaining money criminally.

Clinton called for "comprehensive tobacco regulation," but did not suggest authority for the FDA to ban tobacco products. Instead, he confused the issue with some gratuitous crocodile tears over tobacco farmers. The president was right not to embrace a "compromise" that makes us taxpayers foot the bill for the results of generations of outrageous behavior by the tobacco industry, even while giving big tobacco companies a shield against future legal punishment.

But Mr. Clinton was duty-bound to offer us more than a superficial cop-out speech in which the theme was "tax cigarettes until kids can't buy them." A lot of kids and their offspring will be hurt grievously before the taxes get that high.

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