Public health officials have long warned that cheaper cigarette prices will cause a notable increase in smoking, especially among teenagers.
All this is happening even though the Clinton admininistration seems determined to boost further the $1 hike in federal taxes on cigarettes proposed by New Jersey's Sen. Bill Bradley.
On Nightline on Monday, ABC-TV's Chris Wallace was asking hard questions about the drop in the price of Marlboros. However, so incendiary were Wallace's challenges to the industry that neither Philip Morris nor its chief competitor, RJR Nabisco, nor the industry's Tobacco Institute, would appear on the program.
It was apparent that Wallace did his homework. He said that the reason for the drop in the price of the cigarette was an effort by Philip Morris to fight off an incursion into its market share by discount brands.
Marlboro currently brings in 22 percent of the annual sales of the almost $45 billion industry. Americans alone smoke six billion packs of Marlboros each year.
Richard Daynard of the Tobacco Products Liability Project told Wallace that as a result of the inevitable price war that will result from the cut in Marlboro prices, "We're going to have a tremendous increase in the number of kids smoking in the United States, the number of kids getting hooked on nicotine, and 20, 30, 40 years down the line, the number of people coming down and dying of tobacco-caused diseases."
Daynard added that the best estimates are that for every 10 percent rise or fall in the price of cigarettes, there's a consequent 12 percent rise or fall in the number of kids smoking.
"So a 20 percent drop in the price of Marlboros," Daynard said, "ought to produce about a 20 to 25 percent increase in the number of kids smoking."
Greg Connolly of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, says that between 1980 and 1990, the price of cigarettes doubled. The amount of money
put into advertising during the same period tripled, he said. "What the industry is choosing," Connolly says, "is no longer profits, but rather smokers. What they need is smokers to keep the industry alive after the year 2000 . . . They're taking this brand (Marlboros) and they're discounting (the) price to go after the young smoker, to make sure that they'll have an adequate number of people in the year 2005 and the year 2010."
Marboros are particularly popular with teenagers. Experts say the 20 percent drop in the price of Marlboros will make the cigarette affordable to youngsters. In the short run, the drop in price will cost the company billions. But over time, it will keep kids from going over to one of the cheaper brands.
Through the years, dozens of reports have been published tying smoking to cancer. However, cigarette companies have consistently denied reality, arging there is "no proof" that smoking is dangerous to health.
By now, hundreds of institutions have either banned smoking from their facilities altogether, or established limited areas where employees may smoke.
Fox Chase Cancer Center in Northeast Philadelphia, one of the foremost hospitals in the nation dedicated to battling many types of cancer, has banned smoking from all its facilities and work areas.
In an interview, I asked a hospital spokesperson about its non-smoking policy. She answered without equivocation:
"Fox Chase . . . recognizes that smoking presents a hazard to the health of smokers and non-smokers alike and provides unique risks to staff, visitors and patients."
Cigarette companies don't pay much attention to government warnings about the danger of cigarettes, except to refute the connection between smoking and poor health.
Cigarettes cause more deaths annually than cocaine, heroin, alcohol, homicide, car accidents, fire and AIDS combined. With the possible exception of the 26 percent of Americans who smoke, everybody seems to understand this except those dedicated to keeping the tobacco industry alive.
Every time a corporate talking- head comes on television whining about ''the good the company is doing for the community," cynical ol' me begins to think that it is all part of a plot to help his company dump money in the bank by the barrel.
Despite warnings by government and health experts, smoking continues on as one of the world's most lucrative forms of pleasure - and pain. And it doesn't seem to matter to industry moguls that countless lives go up in smoke year, after year, after year.