Tobacco should be regulated like the drug it is

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial was published on-line with the above title on Thursday, June 4, 2009. The print version’s title was “Trust, but regulate” with the subheading “Tobacco should be controlled like the drug it is.” The editorial is timely, given the current debate in the U.S. Senate on bill S. 982 to give the Federal Drug Administration some control over cigarettes. The House companion bill is H.R. 1256.

Normally, this would be great news, and the legislation has strong support from a number of very influential organizations dedicated to public health and smoking reduction, such as the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

What worries me are some of the details. Leading cigarette maker Philip Morris Cos. is supportive of the legislation, an apparent reason being self-interest: the bill is likely to cement its leadership role in the conventional cigarette market. In fact, in an article by John E. Calfee of the American Enterprise Institute he called the bill the “Marlboro Brand Protection Act.”

Another is a concern that the bill as currently written will outlaw a relatively new nicotine-delivery device, the so-called electronic cigarette which doesn’t burn tobacco leaves but only delivers nicotine to the smoker. These are said to be much safer than conventional cigarettes, and do not emit the carcinogens and other chemicals in conventional cigarettes. It seems the proposal to ban them stems from competitive concerns of cigarette manufacturers like Philip Morris.

Any safety claims for e-cigarettes should be carefully researched but these alternative nicotine delivery devices should not be banned absent that review unless they are found to be as harmful as conventional cigarettes.

The above concerns are being voiced by other critics, such as fellow smoke-free air campaigner Bill Godshall of Smokefree Pennsylvania. He has been keeping me apprised on this issue and sent me John Calfee’s article, “A Public Health Disaster in the Making.”

An alternative legislative approach being proposed is described by John Calfee in his article, which concludes as follows:

“Senators Richard Burr (R) and Kay Hagan (D) of North Carolina have introduced a bill that avoids the worst features of HR 1256 and has the virtue of lodging tobacco regulation in a separate agency and therefore avoiding the FDA, whose snail-like pacing in approving wider use of pure nicotine products has been deplorable. An even better alternative would be to unleash the Federal Trade Commision (FTC), whose regulatory philosophy is the simple toleration if not encouragement of truthful information in marketing. The FTC could regulate tobacco marketing like it regulates marketing for automobiles, computers, and just about everything else. It would require a reasonable basis for health claims. The standard can be tough when the stakes are high; you do not want to claim your car can stop in 100 feet from 60 mph unless you have solid evidence. But if the FTC were free of an implicit obligation to enforce what public health gurus want (sometimes including FDA staff), we could see an extraordinarily fruitful unleashing of methods for safer tobacco use and a consequent decline in the lamentable toll of cigarette smoking.”

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