Esther J. Cepeda

is a Washington Post columnist

Across the country, from college campuses to casinos and even city parks, more lines are being drawn in the sand in the war against smokers.

Yes, I do mean the war against smokers and not the war against smoking. Because everyone knows smoking can kill, the fear of secondhand smoke is being channeled as anger onto the people who choose to do it anyway. And the schizophrenia with which this country approaches this health threat is part of the problem: We sell cigarettes legally and reap benefits from their tax revenue on one hand while funding health studies and public outreach programs to get people to stop puffing on the other.

Last month's big cigarette story was that the Food and Drug Administration will soon require gruesome images such as late-stage cancer patients, crying babies, and diseased lungs on cigarette packages to dissuade the novice smoker from making the purchase and perhaps goose those already considering quitting. Earlier this month, two more alarms rang: One puff could kill you instantly, and smoking in private could put nonsmokers elsewhere in a building at risk.

Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin announced that as little as one cigarette a day - or even just inhaling smoke from someone else's cigarette - could be enough to cause a heart attack and even death. In her statement, Benjamin said: "The chemicals in tobacco smoke reach your lungs quickly every time you inhale, causing damage immediately. Inhaling even the smallest amount of tobacco smoke can also damage your DNA, which can lead to cancer."

This was followed up by a study in the January issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics contending that smoke from the privacy of an apartment could seep through walls and ventilation systems to potentially harm nonsmokers. That study found that apartment-dwelling children had 45 percent more cotinine, a marker of tobacco exposure, in their blood, compared with children who lived in detached homes. The data are inspiring antismoking groups to promote a smoking ban in multiple-occupancy buildings.

If these studies are accurate, they are bad news for everyone - fatal to people who smoke and anyone who might ever come into contact with their death cloud, even four doors down. Makes you wonder how it can be that we haven't all died or caught secondhand lung cancer.

Let me stop to say that I don't smoke. I think anyone who doesn't want to inhale fumes should have a right to clean, fresh air. I love non-smoky atmospheres in restaurants and other public places, and I believe no child under the age of 18 should ever have the opportunity to use tobacco products. But the hypocrisy surrounding the smoking conundrum, and the hatred being unfurled at smokers these days, bothers me to no end.

The estimated 46 million smokers in this country are vilified - openly called filthy, backward, and stupid for smoking. They are given the evil eye, thrown farther out onto the street, and otherwise limited in public because they engage in a legal, albeit unhealthful, adult activity. If the medical studies are to be believed, smoking should be outlawed completely. Really, if one puff could kill you or give you cancer, how could our government possibly keep these products on the shelves for anyone to succumb to?

It's because cigarette and tobacco revenue is big money - a lifeline to many states, in fact. According to the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, tobacco-tax revenue in the United States has increased almost fivefold since 1977. The 2008 numbers show more than $16.5 billion worth of tax revenue collected by the 50 states. California, Texas, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania each make more than $1 billion annually from smokers and other tobacco consumers.

You'd be right to say that money isn't worth the toll in human illness, medical-cost increases, and death, but how would those already cash-strapped states make up the budget shortfall?

Yes, cigarettes are unhealthy and costly to smokers and nonsmoking society in many ways. Yet even as we intensify our efforts to cut the number of new smokers and increase the number of quitters, we must find room in the debate to hate the sin but love the sinners. Unless the government heeds its own warnings and bans all cigarette sales, let's have a little respect for the rights of those among us who choose to light up.

E-mail Esther J. Cepeda at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.