Bill Would Put Tobacco Under FDA Control

A clause protects products now on the market, including many of these cigarettes at JR Tobacco Outlet in Selma, N.C.
A clause protects products now on the market, including many of these cigarettes at JR Tobacco Outlet in Selma, N.C. (By Gerry Broome -- Associated Press)
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

In what appears to be the best chance since public health groups started pushing for it in the 1970s, Congress is poised to regulate tobacco, a product linked to 1,200 deaths each day but sold largely unfettered for centuries.

Legislation that the House Energy and Commerce Committee will take up today would place tobacco under the control of the Food and Drug Administration. Among other things, the bill would restrict the ways tobacco companies market cigarettes, require them to disclose the ingredients in their products and place larger warning labels on packages, and give the FDA the authority to require the removal of harmful chemicals and additives from cigarettes.

The legislation also seeks to crack down on techniques tobacco companies have used to attract children and teenagers, making it illegal to produce cigarettes infused with strawberry, grape, cloves and other sweet flavors. And it would prohibit tobacco makers from using the terms "low tar" and "light" when describing their products, suggesting a health benefit that scientists say does not exist.

Still, some critics say the bill, largely the product of years of negotiation between cigarette giant Philip Morris and the advocacy group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, does not go far enough.

"This is a big gift to Philip Morris and a big scam," said Joel L. Nitzkin, chairman of the tobacco-control task force of the American Association of Public Health Physicians. "Our initial impression was, 'Gee, this would be great.' But when we read through the entire 160 pages, we were horrified by what we saw."

Nitzkin said, for instance, that the bill has a grandfather clause that protects products currently on the market but creates hurdles for new products such as low-nicotine lozenges that deliver a nicotine dose but are not smoked and therefore pose no risk of lung disease and a much-reduced chance of heart disease.

Tobacco is linked to the death of more than 400,000 Americans each year and costs the nation $96 billion in health care annually, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Every day, more than 1,000 children and teenagers become regular smokers.

"It's crazy -- here's this product that kills half of its longtime users, and there are very few restrictions on how it's made and marketed," said Patricia McDaniel, a sociologist at the University of California at San Francisco who has studied the history behind the bill.

"There's a lot of opportunity for the FDA to do some pretty remarkable things: adding more visible warning labels, banning misleading descriptors, some authority over ingredients and allowing the FDA to prohibit certain types of marketing," she said. "But there are a lot of unknowns. And there are questions about whether the FDA is the agency to regulate tobacco, especially now with the trouble it's having regulating food and drugs."

What is more, consumers may get the impression that tobacco is safe if it is regulated by the government, McDaniel said.

Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, acknowledged the contradiction.

"Cigarettes and cigars are drug-delivery systems, delivering an addictive drug -- nicotine -- in a product that kills when used as directed," said Zuckerman, whose group supports the bill. "How can the FDA justify regulating, rather than banning, those products? On the other hand, if the FDA regulates tobacco products, it can stop misleading advertising and help prevent the sale of tobacco products to children. That will save lives."

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