It takes just one or two web sites to put the tobacco industry's proposed $206 million settlement with the State Attorneys General in perspective.
'I'm 12 and have been smoking a little over a year now and totally love it, it's the most awesome thing ever,' says one of many sad postings on a pro-smoking message board aimed at teens and children. Another starts: 'Hi, I'm 12, I started smoking when I was eight. My mum and dad don't mind me smoking at all. I smoke two to three packs a day.'
The address (www.InsideThe-Web.com/mbs.cgi/mb123474) might not be particularly memorable, and it might not have a big audience. But sites like this give a feel for the real people and attitudes that can get drowned out in the shouting match over smoking. The web has to be ranked alongside conventional media, the courts and Washington as one of the battlegrounds for hearts and minds.
Some, like the people who run the Smokescreen web site (www.smokescreen.org), might see a conspiracy behind things like that teen message board. Smokescreen, for example, accuses the tobacco companies of deliberately making convenience stores place cigarette stands in places that will encourage shoplifting by children, in order to get them hooked (http://www.smokescreen.org/alac/Index.html).
It backs its argument up with photos and captions like: 'See how this tobacco display is 1) tall enough to obscure an adult standing in front or to the side of it, 2) is placed at a little-used ... check stand, and 3) is directly across from the store's open-topped, bulk candy bin.' And beneath another: 'THIS IS A SET UP to help kids steal cigarettes without being detected!'
Smokescreen is by no means the shrillest of the pro-or anti-tobacco sites, however. Take a look at www.forcesgeorgia.org, the self-styled 'Citizens of Georgia speaking out against tyranny, oppression, and the loss of civil liberties.' Among the sections you can explore are: 'Anti-Smoking efforts increase Teen Smoking,' and 'Seeking Endorse-ments from Anti-Smoking Fascists.'
Don't assume, though, that it's all playground slanging. Tobacco.org (www.tobacco.org) has a wealth of news and comment culled from all the web, presented in a refreshingly unpolemical style, as well as one of the most comprehensive directories of pro-and anti-tobacco web sites.
The National Association of Attorneys General's site (www. naag.-org) has a copy of last week's proposed agreement, with a handy guide to what the different clauses mean.
In fact, on the web you can see much of the same primary material as journalists writing about the issue. The web does empower people like few other things. But you have all the noise to contend with as well, and the same challenge of sifting, electing and evaluating sources of information that journalists are trained and paid to do. For most people, it will probably prove rather too much effort.