Oversight for Big Tobacco

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

FROM ASPIRIN to zucchini, the Food and Drug Administration monitors much of what Americans consume. But cigarettes, which shorten a smoker's life by 10 years on average, have escaped FDA oversight, largely because of political pressure from Big Tobacco. That could change soon, thanks to a long-overdue bill the House is scheduled to vote on in the next few weeks that would give the agency authority to regulate the tobacco industry. Legislators should make the bill a priority so it has a chance to pass before Congress adjourns on Aug. 10.

The bill would allow the FDA to require a detailed disclosure of cigarette ingredients and to instruct tobacco companies to remove additives harmful to smokers. The bill also would place restrictions on marketing tobacco to youths, make health warning labels more explicit, eliminate descriptions such as "light" or "mild" that misrepresent the hazards of smoking and ban fruit-flavored cigarettes intended to ensnare young smokers. The bill would impose a fee on tobacco companies to fund staff positions at the FDA to oversee the industry.

The most significant obstacle facing the bill, besides Congress's desire for a summer vacation, is that it would not ban the use of menthol additives. Menthol softens the harsh taste of cigarettes, which may make it easier for smokers to become addicted. Menthols are the cigarette of choice for three-fourths of African American smokers, compared with one in four white smokers. This is one reason black men get lung cancer at a rate 50 percent higher than white men do.

One organization, the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, has withdrawn its support for the bill as a result. William S. Robinson, the group's executive director, emphasized that his organization did not oppose the legislation but said the bill discriminates against blacks. We understand Mr. Robinson's concerns and believe the FDA should consider banning menthol promptly if the bill passes. Lawmakers failed to include a ban on the additive out of political necessity; that allowed the bill to earn the support of numerous Republican legislators along with that of tobacco giant Philip Morris.

The bill will probably pass overwhelmingly in the House, but it faces a stiffer challenge in the Senate. Fifty-seven senators, including 12 Republicans, have signed on as co-sponsors. This is three votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster. If this remains so, lengthy debate and other parliamentary holdups could stall the bill; Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has already threatened a filibuster.

The House must vote on the bill soon so it has a chance to pass in the Senate. It's been 44 years since the U.S. surgeon general reported that cigarettes are harmful, and the country shouldn't have to wait another year for independent oversight of Big Tobacco.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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