FDA regulation of Big Tobacco: Good or Bad?

Today’s announcement that both chambers of the Congress have agreed on legislation permitting the FDA to (finally!) regulate tobacco products should be cause for rejoicing. The problem with all legislation is the fine print, not the title. Does this really do what it claims: to finally put the tobacco industry under meaningful regulation in terms of product content, advertising and marketing claims and will it lead to significantly less smoking in the U.S. in the future, as claimed by the law’s proponents?

I’m not sanguine that all of the above will be accomplished, in part because the largest cigarette maker in the U.S., Philip Morris Cos., was closely involved with writing the legislation and approved of it. My experience with the tobacco lobby, going back decades, is that whenever they either remain silent on legislation affecting their bottom line or actively support it, the legislation is likely to be badly flawed and ultimately in their interests.

There appears to have been a troubling alliance between the legislation’s sponsors; the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids; and Philip Morris, hence my reservations now.

Those concerns have been reinforced by numerous articles I’ve been receiving from Bill Godshall of Smokefree Pennsylvania, whom I’ve known for a long time and whose views I respect. He noted that one commentator had dubbed the legislation “The Philip Morris Protection Act.” Those articles raised numerous red flags about the proposed legislation as it steamrollered its way through the Congress.

There’s a rather bland article in today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch which generally omits reference to these issues. You can find the article on-line here followed by reader’s comments.

I’ve posted a somewhat detailed response on-line following a number of other comments on the above article. I’ve pasted the text of my post below:

Martin Pion wrote: June 12, 2009 12:19PM
Today’s article, “Congress sics FDA on Big Tobacco” by Janet Hook, Tribune Washington Bureau, on the front page of today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was rather disappointing. It didn’t mention Philip Morris at all or really detail some of the objections of other tobacco companies, such as RJReynolds, to the legislation.

I also have mixed feelings about this legislation, which is being hailed by many in the tobacco control movement as a major step forward in public health.

The federal government has been AWOL in its regulation of tobacco products for decades, due to the monied influence of the tobacco industry in the Congress, the government’s own addiction to cigarette tax revenues, and the large number of addicted smokers. That is well documented in “The Smoke Ring,” for example, first published in 1984.

The reason for my concerns now is the fact that Philip Morris Cos., the largest cigarette manufacturer in the U.S., if not the world, worked with the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and others on the actual legislation, and supported what was finally approved. My first-hand knowledge of the tobacco industry is that anything of which they approve is inevitably bad for public health.

The much-touted reductions in cigarette smoking that proponents claim will come from this legislation may also be illusory. Some critics are already claiming that all it will do is cement Philip Morris’s leadership role in the U.S. market while eliminating prospective competition from allegedly less-hazardous nicotine delivery devices, such as so-called e-cigarettes, which are currently the subject of a federal lawsuit.

On another historical note regarding the federal government, the only time it has done something indisputably beneficial in terms of public health and smoking was when it made commercial airline flights smoke-free. Before that you had smokers and nonsmokers segregated, but almost immediately the “No Smoking” sign was switched off shortly after takeoff you could smell tobacco smoke in the no-smoking section. I know of several nonsmoking flight attendants who suffered smoking-related diseases as a consequence, including one lady who was otherwise never exposed to secondhand smoke except at work who lost a lung.

To respond to some of the previous posts:

“Mike_Hunt June 12, 2009 6:01AM CST
Aren’t there more important issues our Congress could be working on? Smoking in the U.S is at an all time low. Typical.”

This attempt to dismiss smoking as a non-issue is totally absurd. Smoking has long been identified as the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the U.S. and it remains so. Deaths due to secondhand smoke rate No. 3 or 4 in that same list, depending on what estimate you accept, but it’s at least 35,000 preventable deaths annually. The incubation period before fatal diseases appear in smokers and exposed nonsmokers is decades, so we can expect these numbers to remain high for years to come.

“w.champion June 12, 2009 7:07AM CST
save me government!! save me government!!”

This comment is in the same vein: dismissive of reality.

“The Legend June 12, 2009 6:43AM CST
What’s next? A ban on alcohol? A ban on fatty foods? A ban on pesticides? A ban on cars? A ban on guns? What else is the government going to ban that could be potentially dangerous to the general public? Let people make their own decisions. It is a free country, correct?”

“Rizzeau June 12, 2009 9:33AM CST
…. In my opinion, this country is becoming less free every single second that passes. From the government choosing what words we can hear on television and on the radio, to now how companies are able to market their product. Where will it end?”

Both the above echo a familiar theme of tobacco industry supporters, the so-called “slippery slope” argument: where will it all end?!

The “choice” argument is also utterly false but is another favorite of the tobacco industry. It’s an example of how they have expropriated words and then twisted their meaning. If smokers can “choose” to smoke in public places and private workplaces, then everyone is subjected to the potentially harmful air pollution it causes. It actually takes away an important choice: that of breathing unpolluted air.

Personally, my interest does not extend beyond the secondhand smoke issue. I just want to live in a society where I’m not forced to breathe secondhand smoke where I work, when I go to a restaurant, etc.

Smoking should remain legal but be confined to the private home among consenting adults: just the same way we treat sex.

Martin Pion, President, Missouri GASP.

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