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Drug-War Hypocrisy

ONE of the enemies in the war against drugs is hypocrisy. How, for example, can government battle the ravages of cocaine while ignoring the harm caused by tobacco? Lewis Sullivan's proposal that states crack down on sales of cigarettes and chewing tobacco to minors takes aim at this hypocrisy. The Health and Human Services secretary notes the continued, appalling rate of tobacco use by Americans under 18. Three million of them spend $1.26 billion a year on the addictive substance.

Mr. Sullivan's model state law would ban cigarette vending machines and require licensing of all establishments selling tobacco. Fines and revocation of licenses would await merchants who violate laws against selling to children. Such violations are rampant now, though 44 states prohibit sale of cigarettes to minors.

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Critics say Sullivan's appeal for state action is weak - that federal laws are needed. The dismal record of state enforcement backs their point. At the least, however, the HHS chief is focusing attention where it belongs.

The desire to close the hypocrisy gap is spurring another anti-tobacco effort: divestment of tobacco stocks by universities, state pension funds, hospitals, and other institutions. Industry analysts estimate that 60 percent of tobacco company shares are held by institutions. Harvard and City University of New York have already committed themselves to divestment, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts may follow.

It's a tough decision financially, since tobacco firms like Philip Morris are good earners. But the logic of divestment for organizations devoted to the public good is inescapable.

Drug war hypocrisy won't easily be shaken off. It clings to contradictory policies. Secretary Sullivan, for example, has attacked tobacco promotions and sales aimed at American youth. But the administration is determined to open foreign markets to US products - including cigarettes. Asked about this, the secretary lamely suggested that US tobacco sales in developing countries is not a health issue. It is, of course, and a moral issue as well.

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