Obama may be up in smoke

The boardrooms of Big Tobacco must be abuzz these days over the prospect of the Oval Office again becoming a smoke-filled room. Barack Obama may be their next (or last) best hope to make smoking fashionable again.

There is probably some Nick Naylor-like figure in charge of bundling checks from tobacco executives everywhere. Naylor, you will recall, is the delightfully flawed lobbyist and all-around fixer from Christopher Buckley’s “Thank You for Smoking.” The last time we saw Nick, he was in Hollywood, trying to get actors like Brad Pitt smoking onscreen. “The message Hollywood needs to send out is that smoking is cool; we can put the sex back in cigarettes,” he explains to his colleagues. The problem, as Nick sees it, is that, “These days, when someone smokes in the movies, they’re either a psychopath … or a European.”

Well, imagine Nick’s delight that he won’t have to fly all the way from Washington, D.C., to Hollywood to influence public opinion about the coolness of smoking. He can take a stroll down the street from his K Street offices and be just as effective, if Barack Obama can just get elected. Bagging a president as your role model would be even better than regular-sexy. It’s power and sex all wrapped up into one ego-erotic package. “Handsome Jack Kennedy meets movie star Ronnie Reagan, on two packs a day,” Nick would gush.

Lots of people are probably not as happy as Nick about this turn of events. For starters, I’d imagine everyone with children would be horrified. Even Obama himself understands. Sorta. He says he needs to stop smoking so he’ll be around to walk his daughters down the aisle for their weddings. That’s half the issue. He also wants to avoid becoming a role model for his children and millions of other kids who might think smoking’s cool if Obama does it. That way they may even have healthy children of their own one day.

There is something to this cool factor. A British study sought to influence “cool kids” about tobacco and its dangers. The researchers enlisted the aid of influential students to become leaders who would discourage the rest of their peers from using tobacco. The results were astonishing. Compared with normal anti-smoking campaigns, the cool-kid initiative was 23 percent more effective after one year and 15 percent more after two years. The researchers urged students to “appoint leaders who can lead smokers to give up smoking.”

It’s not just parents and schools that may be dismayed by a smoking president. It’s bound to be demoralizing to the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, and their tri-agency volunteer partners in tobacco control, the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association and American Heart Association. These stalwarts have labored long and hard to wipe out the blight of tobacco from our land, and then this mess comes along. From personal experience, I know that minorities and lower-income voters are some of the toughest sales when it come to tobacco-control ballot measures, like for higher cigarette taxes. If Barack Obama gets elected and persists in sneaking smokes, these last holdouts from the common sense of smoking cessation may resist more than ever.

Personally, after reading medical research on tobacco addiction, I don’t want the finger on our nuclear option button to be stained by nicotine. Researchers are finding that smokers are often the products of a stressed youth. Sound ominously familiar? These smokers develop addictions and compulsive behaviors to cope with stress. It’s even possible that their brain structures are altered. And nicotine is their fuel.

I won’t speculate as to whether Obama is still smoking behind closed doors or hopelessly addicted to those substitute nicotine lozenges. Neither option is acceptable in a president.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.