September 12th, 2007

Our view on public health: Cheerios are regulated — why not cigarettes?

By Editorial
USA Today

Giving FDA authority over tobacco would offer consumers key data.

The federal government regulates most every product you can name, from infant car seats and prescription drugs to spinach, meat, pet food and breakfast cereal. But cigarettes — so deadly they kill 400,000 Americans each year — get a pass.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no authority to regulate them. And Big Tobacco has used its lobbying savvy and campaign contributions to turn back every effort to change that.

Now Congress has another chance, one it shouldn’t squander, particularly as the industry is gearing up to deploy a new generation of tobacco products to appeal to a new generation of consumers.

Last month, Philip Morris launched Marlboro Snus (rhymes with noose) in Dallas, and R.J. Reynolds added Dallas to a list of seven cities where its Camel Snus was already available. Both are a Swedish type of smokeless tobacco that doesn’t require users to spit out the residue. The industry sees snus as a way to boost sales in the face of laws against smoking in offices, restaurants and bars.

Although some, including a top Reynolds’ executive, argue that smokeless tobacco poses fewer health risks than cigarettes, studies have linked it to various diseases, particularly mouth cancer.

Nobody knows for sure. Absent government regulation, however, Big Tobacco would be free to market these and other products as less harmful than cigarettes.

So far, cigarette-makers haven’t done that, but they’ve taken that tack before. On the ropes in 1964 when the surgeon general first warned of smoking’s dangers, the industry came up with “light” and other “low-tar” cigarettes to lure the public. The ploy worked. Smokers switched in droves. Yet to satisfy their addiction, they smoked more and inhaled more deeply. As a result, the National Cancer Institute reported in 2001, the “net effect of the introduction and mass marketing” of these brands may have been an increase in smoking-related deaths.

Federal regulation could prevent a repeat of that cruel deceit. Under a bipartisan measure:

* The FDA would have to approve, based on scientific evidence, any “reduced harm” claim by industry.

* Companies would be required to reveal ingredients in cigarettes and other products — certainly a step ahead of the current situation, where consumers and government scientists are in the dark.

* The government would require bigger cigarette warning labels, ban the use of such labels as “light” and “low-tar,” and prohibit advertising and marketing aimed at kids.

The measure is far from perfect. The FDA has stumbled on regulating various products. It is incongruous, as some critics argue, for a health agency to regulate a product that is inherently deadly. Congress should be careful not to trample legitimate commercial speech rights. It’s also worrisome that the nation’s No. 1 cigarette-maker, Philip Morris, so adept at exploiting federal law, favors the measure.

Yet, the alternative is doing nothing — leaving a rapacious industry free to deceive the public. FDA authority would give consumers a fighting chance to learn the facts and make more informed decisions about whether to use tobacco products.

If a spinach leaf is worthy of government regulation, surely a tobacco leaf deserves at least as much scrutiny.

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