Controlling Nicotine

Sunday, September 28, 2008

WITH THE SENATE a little preoccupied (see: $700 billion bailout) and set to adjourn in the next few days, it's understandable that some worthy legislation has been put on the back burner. Such is the case with a long-overdue bill that would bring regulation by Food and Drug Administration to cigarettes. Unless the Senate reconvenes for a lame-duck session, the bill is unlikely to pass this year. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has threatened to filibuster, and there's not enough time to override his opposition. Still, supporters of the legislation, which passed overwhelmingly in the House this summer, can take solace in the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) signed on as a co-sponsor Wednesday. Mr. Reid's support is likely to make the bill a priority for lawmakers next year.

The FDA regulates everything from vegetables to Viagra. But cigarettes, which lead to some 400,000 deaths in the United States each year and shorten a smoker's life by 10 years on average, have somehow escaped oversight. As a result, tobacco companies don't have to divulge the ingredients in their products. They also don't have to disclose the levels of nicotine in their cigarettes. This means they can label their products as "light" or "low tar" with few restrictions; smokers have no way of knowing whether such claims are true. The bill would prevent cigarette companies from using such labels. It would also curb cigarette advertising and forbid fruit-flavored cigarettes intended to lure new smokers. The legislation would fund a new program within the FDA to oversee Big Tobacco by imposing a user fee on cigarette companies.

The bill's critics, including the Bush administration, say that FDA regulation could trick consumers into thinking cigarettes are approved by the agency. But a provision in the legislation would prohibit Big Tobacco from perpetuating such a misunderstanding. Some critics have said that the bill is incomplete because it doesn't ban menthols, the cigarette of choice for three-fourths of African American smokers. Including such a provision would have eroded bipartisan support for the bill. Besides, the legislation doesn't prohibit the FDA from deciding on its own to ban menthols.

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama are co-sponsors of the legislation, and whichever one becomes president, it's likely that his administration will encourage the bill's passage. It's happening more slowly than we would have liked, but regulation of Big Tobacco is moving closer to becoming a reality.

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