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US state opts for stringent smoking ban

ON THE very day that US tobacco workers took to the streets in Washington to save their jobs, the anti-smoking campaign scored a possibly historic triumph, as Maryland became the first state to opt for a complete ban on smoking in all public places - not just in offices and factories but in shops, restaurants and even bars.

The ban, based on a ruling by the state government that deems second-hand smoke a public safety hazard, is due to come into force in early May. The move is certain to be challenged in court by the tobacco industry. But lawyers said yesterday that, after several federal agency warnings on the perils of passive smoking, the cigarette lobby has little hope of torpedoing the initiative.

The step is being resisted by restaurants and especially bars, who fear they wil lose customers. But the state's licensing chief, William Fogle, pointed out that Maryland had the second highest cancer rate in the United States. 'I'm not going to protect workers in an ice- cream parlour and not protect people who work behind a bar,' he said.

Maryland's move is the most sweeping of a host of curbs across the country that threaten to turn the smoker, in public places at least, into an endangered species. After a number of fast-food chains and retailers, led by McDonald's and Sears Roebuck, banned smoking at their outlets, the Pentagon this week did likewise, barring workplace smoking for about 3 million employees worldwide.

The measure is not quite as draconian as it sounds. Although men will no longer be able to smoke in tanks or aircraft, they wil be able to light up at their barracks, clubs and restaurants. None the less, it is the first time an important government department has so visibly gone to war against the cigarette. Smoking is especially widespread among the armed services, where nearly 40 per cent of personnel smoke compared with a national figure of 27 per cent. But for all the promises of improved health in the military, the Pentagon will continue to subsidise the cost of cigarettes sold at camp stores.

A rich and powerful industry, however, is fighting back. Yesterday some tobacco plants in Virginia gave thousands of workers the day off so they could stage a Washington march to protest against the mounting threat to their livelihood, notably the planned 75 cents-a-pack cigarette tax and new regulations at state and federal level.

The biggest risk of all, however, is a claim last month by the powerful Food and Drug Administration that tobacco manufacturers are lacing their cigarettes with extra nicotine to keep smokers addicted. David Kessler, the FDA director, urged Congress to treat cigarettes as potentially dangerous drugs and control their sale accordingly. In the long run this could even mean cigarette 'Prohibition'. But Mr Kessler admitted he was mindful of what happened with a similar attempt to outlaw alcohol earlier this century.