We've all grown so accustomed to the legislative and regulatory assault on tobacco in this country that the will and ability to defend ourselves - both as an industry and as individuals - continues to dwindle.

The National Smokers Alliance, the ten-year-old smoker's rights group that fought countless measures in Washington with financial support from average citizens and major tobacco manufacturers alike, has packed it in. Meeting the financial requirements of effectively fighting the tsunami-like wave of court battles that limit tobacco use has nearly dwarfed the group's very mission. To keep pace, it concluded, the organization would have to devote greater resources and time to fundraising, with commitment to the defense of smoker's rights becoming secondary. And yet, its work is ever more importmant.

"The effort to disenfranchise and marginalize smokers is, in reality, only one facet of a much broader assault on individual freedoms that has begun to infuse society," noted NSA president Thomas Humber in explaining the board's decision to contribute all remaining funds to the Center for Individual Freedom.

In Illinois, the sale of imported bidi cigarettes is now illegal, thanks to the state legislature and Governor, despite the lack of backing by the Illinois Attorney General, who felt it inappropriate to ban a product intended for adults. Even so, little could be done to prevent the outcome. The fear that bidis would become a health crisis bigger than cigarettes among youth drove the product from existence in that state. With the ice cracked, more states could follow.

"The market is so infinitesimal and affects so few people," noted Gary Avram, executive director of the Specialty Tobacco Council. "There's not a big enough populace using it to pressure a legislature or enough business to warrant litigation" contesting a bidi ban.

In San Francisco, the desire to banish high-volume discount cigarette outlets from within city limits threatens to further squeeze the life out of the corner cigar shop, already a tag-along victim of the state's attack on cigarettes. The mood overall in California continues to sink, with some predicting that the smoking public's patience will at some point simply break, and not politely.

Even distributors aren't safe. Between the Master Settlement Agreement, which unleashed a torrent of bureaucratic record-keeping and financial reporting - the standards of which are determined on a state-by-state basis - and the Fed's war on gray market cigarettes, companies who import relatively small amounts of specialty tobacco products have found life becoming unbearable.

"The information they're requesting is absolutely useless," says Joanne Diggett of G.A. Andron, who has resorted to sifting through individual invoices by hand to meet each state's varying requests for sales documentation. Information, it turns out, that is irrelevant to the goal of preventing gray market imports, but plenty disruptive to the small importer's ability to simply do its job. "There is no purpose in the entire exercise," Diggett concludes.

With signs that the Republican Bush administration may be less inclined to continue its predecessor's style of heavy-handed tobacco control, perhaps there is a glimmer of light that a more rational framework of regulation may yet emerge. Hopefully, before the will to fight back erodes entirely.

E. Edward Hoyt III