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Joe Camel noses onto the summer reading list

By Clay Waters
web posted May 7, 2001

Tobacco control has fired up again as a political issue. John Ashcroft's refuses to ask for more money to fund his Justice Department's lawsuit against tobacco companies, and the Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to a Massachusetts ban on tobacco ads within 1,000 feet of schools.

But as the school year winds down and summer approaches, the biggest pro-tobacco outrage may pass unnoticed.

During the summer, the long filter of Big Tobacco will follow millions of high school kids home from school, tucked into summer reading lists. And not only will this pro-smoking propaganda be school-sanctioned, it will be required reading:

"[Winston Smith] would finish smoking it after work, if he could keep the tobacco in it. Quite likely the person at the next table was a spy of the Thought Police, and quite likely he would be in the cellars of the Ministry of Love within three days, but a cigarette end must not be wasted." -- George Orwell, "1984"

And what of this from Holden Caulfield, the universal icon of dissatisfied adolescents: "Finally, though, I'd leave his room without even taking a sock at him. I'd probably go down to the can and sneak a cigarette and watch myself getting tough in the mirror." -- J.D. Salinger, "Catcher In The Rye."

Can you see a pattern here? Tobacco portrayed as a relaxant, as a spot of contentment in an oppressive existence-and a way of looking cool. Are these the kind of messages we want to send to our children?

Those aren't exceptions. Name a book on a high school summer reading list, and you will likely positive smoking references cunningly woven into the storylines. The characters of reading list perennials F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway smoke like chimneys-yet "The Great Gatsby" and "The Sun Also Rises" are forced onto our kids during the languorous summer months, where ample free time makes them vulnerable to experimentation.

Obviously, the pro-tobacco propaganda campaign is more deep-rooted than even former FDA head David Kessler ever imagined. Can anything be done?

The offending pages could be removed from future editions. There is a sort of precedent for this. When the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp to honor Mississippi blues singer Robert Johnson, it logically used as its likeness the only extant photograph of him, one showing a cigarette in his mouth. However, on the stamp itself the cigarette was airbrushed out.

But First Amendment problems and copyright hurdles probably prevent a similar sort of Bowdlerization. It would be easier to simply remove these books from reading lists and school libraries. For tips, I would suggest another reading list favorite: Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."

Clay Waters is the opinion editor for BridgeNews in Manhattan and has been published in Human Events, The American Enterprise, The Santa Barbara Review, as well as Enter Stage Right. His online home can be found at www.claywaters.com.

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