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The last time we had an election around here, I made a terrible mistake.

On Nov. 6, I stuck my tongue in my cheek and urged you to vote for Jesse Helms. To buttress my ``endorsement' I cited Jesse's appalling record on civil rights, education, taxes and the environment.I even pointed out that he once said environmentalists just want to ``save an owl out there on the West Coast somewhere.'

We all know how that election turned out. So this time I'm stowing the irony and going with the sledgehammer. Read my lips, and read them literally:


My reason for taking this stance is simplicity itself.

While I'm all for the rights of tobacco farmers and cigarette companies to produce their deadly, addictive drugs, I don't want them - or anyone else - blowing smoke in my face. They're free to kill themselves. But leave me out of it.

Though that stance strikes me as reasonable and simple, this issue ignites such heated emotions that nothing about it winds up being simple.

For example, those who would gut our current mandatory smoking ban and replace it with a toothless voluntary ban have a tendency to veer off on tangents. One of their favorite topics is the relative perils of tobacco and alcohol.

Kate Austin of High Point recently wrote me a letter that expresses this:

``When the ABC stores and all other places that manufacture and sell alcohol for drinking purposes cease to exist, then the growers and manufacturers of tobacco should do the same - and not one minute before!'

The only way to counter such lame reasoning is to remind Austin that:

No one is trying to outlaw cigarettes.

It's doubtful that our existing ordinance has robbed a single tobacco farmer or Lorillard employee of his job.

The existing ordinance is designed not to inhibit smokers, but to safeguard the health and comfort of people who choose not to smoke.

Alcohol was once banned in this nation. The experiment was called Prohibition, and it bombed even worse than the Edsel.

The purchase and consumption of alcohol is already highly regulated and taxed. People who abuse alcohol and act against the best interests of society - drunken drivers, wife beaters, child abusers - are dealt with severely. Violators of the smoking ban face a $25 fine.

As for the bogus issue of ``smokers' rights,' the only right a smoker has is to kill himself. About 400,000 Americans avail themselves of this right every year.

But their ``rights' are not unlimited, as Herbert Wells of Greensboro wrote in a recent letter to the editor:

``I am a smoker, but that is my problem. I believe that my right to smoke stops at your nostrils, just as your right to listen to loud rock music stops at my ear. We have a reasonable ordinance.'

Sadly, this debate has inspired a paucity of Wells' brand of eloquence but an abundance of nastiness.

There's no doubt in my mind that the drive to repeal our mandatory smoking ban was spawned by the big cigarette companies, particularly Lorillard in east Greensboro. Their tactics have ranged from the tasteless to the obscene.

A recent union newsletter at Lorillard listed how more than two dozen Greensboro businesses responded when Lorillard workers asked whether they could circulate petitions among workers. The businesses were rated - from ``excellent' to ``cool reception.'

Anti-smoking activists have also reported receiving telephone threats, including one against an activist's child.

Fortunately, there have also been a few rays of wit and humor in this ugly struggle. I recently received an anonymous phone call from a man who said he thought the pro-smoking outfit, VOICE, isn't hard-core enough.

``We've formed a new group called SCREECH, Smokers Campaign to Ruin Everyone Else's Comfort and Health,' this caller said. ``We want to get rid of the smoking ordinance altogether. We think Greensboro has no need for 'Non-Choking' areas.'

Oops, there I go again with the irony.

Please ignore this tongue-in-cheek SCREECH outfit. And please vote NO today. The life you save may be mine.

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