By Kevin Ross

440,000 Americans die prematurely of tobacco-related illnesses each year. 

45,000 to 50,000 preventable deaths are tied to cigarette usage just in the African-American community alone. 

Tobacco is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, yet forty four million American adults continue to smoke.

In my first 2007 prediction, I’m going on record that smoking and the health issues surrounding it will provide major political talking points in 2007 and the 2008 presidential election. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) confirmed my assertion earlier this month when she did a drive-by on smoking in the speaker’s lobby. The opulent space, known as Smokers Alley, had become one of the most famous carcinogen-filled rooms in our nation’s capitol.

Right outside the House chamber, this was the hangout where lawmakers could relax in leather wing chairs between votes and debates while getting their puff on. With estimates that as many as 100 men and women who serve in the hallow halls of Congress light up, I imagine it probably looked like a scene straight out of Vegas, baby.

"I am a firm believer that Congress should lead by example," Pelosi said, citing the dangers of secondhand smoke while beginning her work week on a Tuesday so a few house members could attend the Ohio State – Florida State football game on Monday January 15th. So much for the Democrats pledge of working five days a week instead of four under the previous Republican leadership.

"That’s fine," quipped House Republican Leader and unabashed chain smoker John Boehner of Ohio. Of course he would say that, given members can still smoke in their own offices.  Never mind that smoking was halted on the House floor in 1871 and in the Senate chamber in 1914. With the Senate not having the equivalent of the House speaker’s lobby, smoking has also been completely prohibited on the Senate side of the Capitol.

Although it is said that Hillary Clinton, during her husband’s presidency, first barred smoking in the White House, apparently that hasn’t stopped current First Lady Laura Bush from getting her nicotine fix. According to veteran reporter Ronald Kessler, author of Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady, “At the White House, she might step outside on the Truman Balcony to take a few puffs”. Kessler also interviewed longtime Bush friend Dr. Charles Younger, an orthopedic surgeon, who said. "She wouldn’t tell you she never does it, but it’s not an image she would like to promote as a healthy habit from the First Lady who is supposed to be perfect."

This is not about perfection. With all the endless discussions about the quality of health care, spiraling costs and universal coverage, what message are politicians sending white Americans in general and black folks in particular when it comes to living healthy, battling addiction, and personal responsibility?

Apparently, Senator Barack Obama, it’s “do as I say, not as I do”.

Having now officially stated her intention to make history as America’s first female president, Senator Clinton’s popularity in Democratic presidential-preference polls tops 41%, compared to Senator Obama at 17% according to a Washington Post/ ABC News field poll. Among likely black voters, Hillary’s support is at 53% versus Barack’s 27%. Given low poll numbers in the nation’s first caucus and primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, however, it is only a matter of time before Barack is forced to herald his divorce from non specifics on Iraq, and tobacco to boot. 

Senator Obama doesn’t have a choice. Candidate operatives for several West Wing aspirants have already begun categorically dismissing him as an empty suit. At this stage, anything that can pierce that Teflon image and take him out quickly is fair game. But New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd disagrees. She opined in a recent column that this is a perfectly acceptable vice for the Illinois bi-racial boy wonder.  Along with his acknowledged past drug use, Ms. Dowd finds the disgusting habit of smoking virtuous because Obama is demonstrating that he is both forthright and flawed. 

While Dowd herself may be a nicotine fiend, for the sake of Obama’s lungs, this extramarital affair with cigarettes must come to an expeditious end. For the sake of his electoral ambitions, the issue also gives Obama the candidate a strong platform to campaign on.

Most of all, it’s yet another opportunity for the pol to claim the leadership mantle for a race of people struggling with whether he’s sufficiently “black like me”, while dying a slow death from hip hop, Katrina love, and the thought of Al Sharpton making another presidential run.

So senator, when can we expect to see your non-discolored, cigarette free lips on Youtube? After Hillary’s announcement over the weekend and her follow-up prescription for solving the health care crisis, the patch and Nicorette gum is in your court.

Former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kevin Ross is a writer and political commentator.

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