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"I must do everything I can to bring this assault to a halt."

-President Bill Clinton,

Aug. 10, 1995

Oh, the problems the president gets into bringing assaults to a halt. Whether it's a charismatic cult leader barricaded inside a compound, or a charismatic camel beckoning from billboards, the Clinton administration has shown it will go to extreme lengths when children's lives and well-being hang in the balance.

Such as sending an armed force into pitched battle with a bunch of heavily armed paranoiac crackpots. Such as trying to subdue the tobacco industry by lobbing into its fortress a flaming copy of the Constitution.

The proposed rule regulating tobacco marketing is looking very much like a sequel to the Branch Davidian debacle. Call it Waco II: Up In Smoke.

The BATF has been replaced by the FDA. The ammunition is ordinance instead of ordnance. And this time, of course, in the role of David Koresh: Joe Camel.

But if congressional critics thought invoking force to serve a legal warrant was trampling on First Amendment rights, wait till they see the abridgments of speech in this proposal. The details are complicated, but the upshot is the replacement in most venues of ordinary advertising content with imageless text of the tombstone-ad variety. Which is to say: censorship.

Which is to say: an outrage heaped upon an outrage.

So, who to blame?

Not Clinton.

Yes, the president is sidestepping the First Amendment as if it were a puddle in the street. And, no, you can't regulate adolescent psychology, and this further demonization of cigarettes may only enhance the mystique of the forbidden tobacco fruit. And, goodness, by what authority is the FDA going to regulate the advertising of a drug that doesn't advertise itself as a drug?

There is virtually no chance that any of the advertising provisions of the proposed rule will ever emerge from the inevitable legal challenges intact.

But all that said, just as in the Waco tragedy, the villain is not the over-reaching, perhaps even reckless government. The villain is a chillingly Koreshlike Joe Camel-an amoral tobacco industry that negotiates in bad faith and prepares for all out battle while cravenly putting the lives of children in jeopardy.

RJR, naturally, has consistently denied targeting children. Believe that if you wish-bearing in mind these are people who like to describe tobacco-related cancer and heart disease as a "controversy." This is like saying the connection between gunshots and gunshot wounds is a controversy. And let's stay with that imagery for a moment, because on this whole business of what the target is, the tobacco industry is exposed for what it is. The target is irrelevant, because advertising isn't a rifle. It is a shotgun. And children, day in and day out, as RJR and everybody else knows, are caught in the spray.

Beyond even the industry's unforgivable sins of omission with respect to keeping its products out of the hands of children, the use of a cartoon camel is and always has been utterly contemptible.

It has been begging for a showdown, a cataclysmic Final Battle, tobacco Armageddon. And now it will get one, God help the innocent victims of the conflagration. Joe Camel, their blood is on your hooves.

Ad Age Bulletin Board on Prodigy, or by Prodigy e-mail at EFPB35A.

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