Hold your breath. The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. has begun selling Premiers, a new "smokeless" cigarette, in test markets in St. Louis, Phoenix and Tucson. Neither smokeless nor safe, the cigarette may be the industry's final gasp before all cigarettes face further congressional control or an outright ban.
In June, the hitherto invulnerable tobacco industry was breached at last. Having absolved three manufacturers - the Liggett Group, Lorillard and Philip Morris - of fraudulently misrepresenting the risk of smoking, a federal jury in Newark nonetheless awarded $400,000 to the husband of Rose Cipollone, an habitual smoker who died of lung cancer in 1984.The jury found that Liggett had failed to warn consumers, prior to the 1986 passage of the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, of the hazards of its products.
Whether Liggett wins or loses on appeal, the flagrant immorality of the cigarette business has now become too transparent for any but the willfully blind to deny. Obviously the industry is still legal. Just as obviously, it is a vicious social evil.
The Constitution and the courts have protected a variety of evils throughout our history. Slavery is the most glaring example. Another is the adulteration of food, an acceptable practice until Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle," an expose of the meat-packing industry, led to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration.
Is smoking an evil of this magnitude? Surgeon General C. Everett Koop seems to think so. Cigarettes, he recently reported, are as addictive as heroin, noting their effects are 30 times more lethal than all narcotics-related fatalities combined.
More than 350,000 people die of diseases related to cigarette smoking each year - seven times the annual death toll on our highways. The Surgeon General's report on cigarettes is based on more than 2,000 scientific studies.
The Cipollone lawyers produced hundreds of internal company documents to show that, as early as 1940, the industry knew and concealed the fact that smoking was linked to cancer.
A research paper for Philip Morris reported that "carcinogens are found in practically every class of compounds in smoke." Another for Liggett said that the active materials in cigarettes are cancer causing and promoting.
So what? The tobacco companies insist there is no "direct evidence" to prove cigarettes cause lung cancer or coronary disease. Besides, the industry argues, people choose to smoke of their own free will and thus are responsible for their fate.
In large measure, the Newark jury agreed and allocated 20 percent of the blame for Mrs. Cipollone's death to Liggett and 80 percent to herself.
But what of the ethical dimensions? Assume that individuals are free to choose. Even the most dedicated industry advocate must admit that it is at least possible that cigarettes cause cancer and other diseases.
Is the tobacco industry justified in the manufacture and sale of a product that may "possibly" cause the death of millions? The answer is surely a clear and unequivocal no. Manufacturers have recalled thousands of cars for much less threatening possibilities.
And what if tomorrow or the next day the tobacco industry is proved to be mistaken and the scientific community correct? Will the arrival of that day of reckoning resurrect the victims or trouble the conscience of anyone in the industry?
"Smokeless" cigarettes are a tacit admission of the danger the cigarette manufacturer has long denied. They may retard but they won't reverse the flood of moral revulsion that is long overdue.
Sooner or later, Congress will have to decide if a $35 billion a year business is worth the annual cost of 350,000 American lives.
(Irwin Stark is professor emeritus of English at City University of New York.)