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If ever there was an idea whose time should finally come, it is the proposal that tobacco be regulated just like any other dangerous drug.

Nothing will ever come of this sensible suggestion until Congress starts putting the public's health ahead of the lawmakers' own short-sighted political interest.But meanwhile, the momentum for such a sharp policy change keeps mounting.

This week, the American Medical Association urged Washington to start regulating cigarettes as an addictive, dangerous drug. Backing up its stand with new data, the AMA released fresh research showing that nonsmoking women with smoking spouses face a 30 percent greater risk of lung cancer than women with non-smoking husbands.

This finding is in line with a report last year from the Environmental Protection Agency showing that secondhand tobacco smoke is responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people in the United States each year.

The AMA stand on government regulation of cigarettes, in turn, is in line with previous such requests from the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society.

The idea is not to outlaw tobacco, a political impossibility at this point because tens of millions of Americans are still hooked on the habit even though it kills more of them in a year than died in the entire Vietnam War.

Rather, the objective is simply to enable the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to exercise enough extra control over cigarettes to keep them out of the hands of minors.

No matter how long it takes, the AMA and other health organizations should keep pushing their request. It took many years of campaigning before Congress finally heeded demands for a ban on TV ads for tobacco and for health warning labels on cigarette packs. In the process, Joseph Califano Jr. was fired as U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare for pushing an anti-smoking campaign.

But such campaigns eventually paid off. The current one can, too, once enough politicians realize that if tobacco were a brand new product it would have to undergo all sorts of government tests and regulations before it could be sold. What's needed now is another Cabinet official like Califano, someone willing to put the public's health ahead of his or her job security.