The Endless War Against Tobacco -- The Lesson In All This Is That Social Engineering Has Its Limits. A Sizable Percentage Of The Population Will Smoke However Stringent The Limitations And However Insistent The Public Condemnation.

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, governments, doctors and moralists have tried to stop people from smoking. But tobacco lives on, defying laws aimed at a smokeless society. From King James I of England to America's Lucy Page Gaston, anti-smoking crusaders have always failed. Getting kids to stop smoking is the hardest task of all. Why? Maybe it's in our genes, says a historian. ------------------------------- IN brokering the agreement reached last week between the tobacco industry and 46 states, Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire joins a large fraternity of kings, legislators, mandarins and magistrates who have tried, at various times and in various ways, to wean their constituents from the embrace of Lady Nicotine. Gregoire, flush with triumph, has promised that "the real truth about tobacco will soon be available to every American."

The implication is that people will then do what is good for them - swear off cigarettes forever and shove the tobacco industry into the ash can of history.

What seems more likely is that the "truth" - that smoking is a nasty, expensive and unhealthy habit - has already had as much effect as it is going to have. Twenty-five years from now, when the money from the tobacco settlement dries up, state officials will still be wondering how to stop people from smoking.

One of the most striking things about the history of tobacco is how persistent its use has been in every culture where it has been available, despite endless, if ever-changing, controversy. Since commercial cultivation began in the 17th century, what early opponents called the "Devil's Weed" has been alternately and sometimes simultaneously restricted, subsidized and exploited by official edict. Yet for the most part, consumption has remained relatively stable, involving about a third of the population, give or take 10 to 12 percentage points.

The prevailing fashions have changed (from pipes to snuff to chewing tobacco and cigars to cigarettes) and gender patterns have changed (from predominately male to gender neutral, at least in Western nations), but tobacco has endured. Human beings have been smoking, chewing and snuffing the leaves of Nicotiana tabacum for at least 2,000 years and possibly longer.

Indigenous to South America, the plant was widely distributed in the New World by the time Europeans got their first glimpses of it. Natives of the Caribbean greeted Christopher Columbus with gifts of what he called "some dry leaves which must be a thing very much appreciated among them." Columbus did not share their appreciation, but a number of his sailors did. The first recorded legal action against a smoker involved a member of Columbus' crew who apparently learned to smoke in Cuba. When the sailor lit up for the first time back home in Spain, local authorities - alarmed by the smoke issuing from his mouth and nose - assumed he had been possessed by the devil. He was promptly sent to prison by the Inquisition.

In his famous "Counterblaste to Tobacco," written in 1604, King James I of England excoriated his subjects for using a substance that was "loathsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmefull to the braine" and "dangerous to the lungs," among other things. James considered tobacco and papism to be the biggest evils facing his realm. Several popes agreed with him, at least on the first point.

Pope Innocent X and Pope Urban VIII ordered smokers to be excommunicated. Excommunication was the least of a smoker's worries in the 17th century. In China, an imperial decree issued in 1638 made the use or distribution of tobacco a crime punishable by decapitation. Sultan Ahmed I of Turkey ordered the noses of smokers to be pierced with pipestems. His son and eventual successor, Murad IV, took an even harder line: he had smokers executed as infidels.

In Russia, smokers were flogged; the nostrils of repeat offenders were slit; and persistent violators were exiled to Siberia. In Persia, they were tortured, impaled and/or beheaded. The Mogul emperor of Hindustan was relatively restrained. Under his orders, smokers merely had their lips split.

Two hundred years or so later, life was still difficult on Tobacco Road, particularly for the then-fledgling cigarette industry. By 1922, the legislatures of 15 states (beginning with Washington in 1893) had enacted laws banning the sale, manufacture, possession, advertising and/or use of cigarettes altogether, and no fewer than 22 other states and territories had considered such legislation. Many municipalities imposed further restrictions, from making it illegal for women to smoke in public, to outlawing smoking in or around school buildings, to banning certain kinds of advertising. Bias in the workplace, courtroom

Cigarette smokers faced discrimination in the courtroom, in the workplace and in daily life. In 1904, for example, a New York judge ordered a woman to jail for 30 days for smoking in front of her children. A few years later, a Seattle woman won a divorce on the grounds that her husband was "a cigarette fiend."

Many companies, large and small, refused to hire cigarette smokers. Workers who indulged even on their own time could lose their jobs. When a rural Washington school board found out that one of its teachers had been smoking in the schoolyard after class, it fired him; the teacher sued for reinstatement but lost. Likewise, a teacher in Secaucus, N.J., failed to get her job back after she was fired for cigarette smoking in 1923, despite an appeal that reached the state Supreme Court.

Congress rejected several petitions to prohibit cigarettes at the federal level, but in 1892 the Senate Committee on Epidemic Diseases agreed that they were a public health hazard and urged the petitioners to seek remedies from the states.

Although a number of lower courts held that cigarette-prohibition laws were unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed their validity in an important decision involving a Tennessee statute at the turn of the century.

Washington state legislators led the way in these early challenges to the cigarette industry. The nation's first cigarette-prohibition law passed the state Senate with no discussion and only one dissenting vote. Three months after the law was enacted, a federal court in Seattle declared it unconstitutional on the grounds that it improperly restrained interstate trade. This was an issue that would be debated time and again during the next two decades as other states enacted similar legislation and the industry fought back through the courts.

The New York Times endorsed the court's decision in Washington, commenting, "The smoking of cigarettes may be objectionable, as are many other foolish practices, and it may be more injurious than other modes of smoking tobacco, but it is an evil which cannot be remedied by law." The next Washington Legislature quietly repealed the law.

Anti-smoking advocates made several other efforts to outlaw cigarettes in Washington state but they did not succeed again until 1907, when the Legislature made it illegal to "manufacture, sell, exchange, barter, dispose of or give away any cigarettes, cigarette paper or cigarette wrappers" upon penalty of a fine of up to $500, plus court costs and up to six months in jail. Cigarettes did not become legitimate articles of commerce in Washington until 1911, and at that time, their sale was limited to people over the age of 21.

The Food and Drug Administration was first petitioned to investigate the content of cigarettes in 1912. The effects of "secondhand smoke" on nonsmokers were being debated in the 1920s. Decades before the surgeon general began labeling cigarettes as hazardous to health, an anti-cigarette activist proposed that each package be stamped with the word "poison" in capital letters above a skull and crossbones.

The industry's key challenger during this period was Lucy Page Gaston, who founded the Anti-Cigarette League of America in 1899. Gaston grew up near Chicago in a reform-minded family and later worked as a schoolteacher in several small towns in Illinois. She was disturbed by the boys she saw sneaking behind the schoolhouse to smoke cigarettes; they developed "cigarette face," she said, and invariably failed their examinations.

Although she didn't have much use for tobacco in any form, she was particularly concerned about cigarettes. She believed their low cost and relative mildness made them more seductive to young people than other kinds of tobacco. She was certain that a youngster who smoked would be more likely to drink, use other drugs, engage in crime and otherwise misbehave. Her goal was "a smokeless America by 1925."

Gaston and her allies employed arguments that have a familiar ring today. Cigarettes were "dope sticks" or "paper pills" (pill was a common term for opium after it was prepared for smoking); people who smoked them were "cigarette fiends"; people who manufactured and sold them were engaged in "the cigarette traffic."

A public health official in Indiana, recalling his childhood in the 1890s, remembered his father pointing out a cigarette smoker at a baseball game, in a tone of voice that implied the man was holding a hypodermic of morphine instead of a cylinder of tobacco. Dr. Randolph Smoak, president of the board of the American Medical Association, recently echoed those sentiments when he described cigarettes as "no different than syringes," and said "they should be regulated just as we regulate morphine and heroin." Second fiddle to morality Early reformers also identified cigarettes as a cause of nearly every major health problem now linked to smoking (with the notable exception of lung cancer, which was extremely rare until the 1930s). From the beginning, the debate about tobacco has included speculation about its health effects. King James was among those who theorized that smoke might have the same corrosive effects inside the body as it had inside a chimney. By the late 19th century, crude lab experiments were being used to show a connection between smoking and certain cancers, and the first statistics on smoking and mortality were being culled from the records of life-insurance companies.

Two-hundred years later, the focus of the opposition had shifted to cigarettes, but to Gaston, it still seemed as if smokers were "offering burnt incense to Satan."

Today's anti-smoking activists emphasize public health over private rectitude, but they are hardly free of moralism. They speak of the need to wage "war" against the "merchants of death" who have brought about "the tobaccoism holocaust." They use militaristic language, pressing for "victory" over a demonized enemy. This is the classic language of moral reformers.

They also share with their predecessors an addiction to hyperbole. For example, in trying to salvage an anti-tobacco bill last summer, President Bill Clinton (an occasional cigar smoker) accused Congress of "standing in the way of saving 1 million children's lives." As a New York Times writer pointed out recently, such statements are wild estimates based more on unsupported projections than on facts.

By any measure, smoking is a serious public-health problem in the world today. The Office on Smoking and Health in the federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that 32 percent of people who smoke at least a pack of cigarettes a day will die from smoking-related diseases and they will die, on the average, about seven years earlier than nonsmokers. However, data from the CDC also show that while 80 percent of Americans over age 18 have tried cigarettes, only about one-fourth of them are still smoking. Of the remaining smokers, 18 percent light up only occasionally.

Reviled even if legal BY continuing to compare cigarettes to heroin and cocaine, the anti-smoking lobby may be subtly undermining its own objectives: smokers may be convinced by the rhetoric that it's hopeless to try to quit or cut back.

The cigarette today is the most reviled product available legally in the United States, blamed for the premature deaths of more than 400,000 Americans a year, banned from most public buildings, besieged in the courts and subject to ever-tightening restrictions on advertising, promotion and sale. Yet one out of four adults continues to smoke, a figure that has hardly budged in more than a decade, and the number of teenage smokers has been increasing.

Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's call for "a smoke-free America by 2000" is no closer to reality than Lucy Page Gaston's dream of "a smokeless America by 1925."

The lesson in all this is that social engineering has its limits. A sizable percentage of the population will smoke however stringent the limitations and however insistent the public condemnation. Some researchers are beginning to think the explanation may lie in genetics.

Dean Hamer, a biologist at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, and a pioneer in the study of behavior and genetics, is among those who believe genes play an essential role in whether people start smoking, how much they smoke, and whether they eventually quit. "Cigarette smoking has dropped from 40 percent to 25 percent since World War II, but 25 percent of all people still smoke," he said. "They are completely resistant to all the social and cultural changes we make. Those differences are genetic."

Other researchers point to the inherent appeal of the illicit. The more vigorous the attacks on cigarettes, the more attractive they become as symbols of rebellion and independence, particularly to young people. Cigarettes are simply too useful - as generational markers, as self-medication for either depression or excitability, as emblems of solidarity with peers - to make a "smoke-free America" more than wishful thinking on the part of the anti-smoking lobby.

Cassandra Tate is the author of "Cigarette Wars: The `Triumph' of the Little White Slaver," scheduled to be published in mid-December by Oxford University Press. She smoked her last cigarette in 1976. She resides in Seattle.