Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Religious Leaders Support FDA Tobacco Legislation

A coalition of Ohio religious leaders Monday launched a campaign to put pressure on Congressmembers to enact legislation (currently pending before the House and Senate) that would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory authority over tobacco products.

According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch: "Saying the federal government has a moral responsibility to keep cigarettes out of the hands of children, a coalition of central Ohio religious leaders launched a campaign yesterday to pressure lawmakers to put the Food and Drug Administration in charge of tobacco regulations. The campaign moved from Texas to Ohio in February after Rep. John Boehner, R-West Chester, replaced Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, as House majority leader. ...

The group held a news conference yesterday at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Columbus to announce a petition drive and letter-writing campaign to persuade Boehner and other lawmakers to support legislation making tobacco products an FDA responsibility. 'As people of faith and as community leaders, we are here today to say, '‘Enough is enough,'’ ' said Dr. Asma Mobin-Uddin, president of the Ohio chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. 'This means standing up against an unregulated tobacco industry that markets candyflavored products that look like cigarettes to children.'

U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, has sponsored a bill to put tobacco under FDA oversight. A similar bill is pending in the House, but neither has been scheduled for a vote. ...

About a dozen central Ohio leaders representing Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Sikh and other religions appeared at yesterday'’s news conference. ... Rabbi Harold Berman, of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, pointed to a box of macaroni and cheese and said it is subject to stricter federal regulation than cigarettes are."

The Rest of the Story

I don't think God would be too happy with these efforts to promote passage of Senate Bill 666 and House Bill 1376. In fact, if God were elected to the 109th Congress, I strongly suspect that he would oppose this legislation, because I doubt he would support legislation that contains compromise provisions negotiated by Philip Morris that put loopholes in the bill that would weaken the FDA's ability to protect the public's health and that would ensure that the most critical decisions regarding the regulation of tobacco products were made on political, not scientific grounds.

I also doubt that God would support legislation that provides virtual immunity to the tobacco companies for wrongdoing and which helps ensure the market share and profit for the nation's largest cigarette manufacturer.

The proposed FDA legislation that these religious leaders are apparently supporting on the grounds of their "faith" would provide the following special protections for Big Tobacco:
  • ensure that any decision to eliminate the addictive chemical - nicotine - from cigarettes would be a political, rather than a scientific decision by putting it into the hands of Congress;
  • ensure that any decision to require changes in the product substantial enough that the courts could interpret it as eliminating an entire class of cigarettes would be a political, rather than a scientific decision by putting it into the hands of Congress;
  • prohibit the FDA from increasing the legal age of sale of cigarettes;
  • prohibit the FDA from eliminating tobacco sales in pharmacies, as well as any other specific type of retail outlet;
  • require the FDA to make cigarettes the only drug that it regulates for which it cannot require a doctor's prescription, thus ensuring widespread access to this deadly drug by kids;
  • ensure that all decisions regarding the regulation of tobacco products, unlike those regarding any other consumer product regulated by FDA, would be political rather than scientific ones by specifically granting Congress the authority to overturn any major FDA tobacco regulation deemed necessary to protect the public's health
It's unclear to me why these religious leaders would put their "faith" in legislation that includes these special loopholes that were negotiated into the bill by Philip Morris and which provide special protections for the industry that are not enjoyed by the manufacturers of other products regulated by FDA (such as macaroni and cheese).

If these leaders are really serious about ending special protections for Big Tobacco, then they should not be supporting the FDA tobacco legislation, but instead should be demanding that these special protections for Big Tobacco, which were negotiated by the industry and apparently agreed to on behalf of the American public by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, be eliminated from the legislation.

There is no reason why Big Tobacco should enjoy a huge number of special protections that manufacturers of drugs currently regulated by FDA do not enjoy, and there is no reason why politics, and not science and public health, should be is the ultimate arbiter of the regulation of this deadly product.

Let me make one thing clear, however. I am not necessarily blaming these religious leaders for supporting legislation that provides unprecedented and unconscionable special protections for an industry that kills hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. It may well be that they are not aware of the loopholes in the bill and that they have been fooled and deceived by the propaganda campaign of deception being run by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Is Rabbi Berman, aware, for example, that there are special protections in this bill for Philip Morris that were inserted into the bill upon the insistence of the tobacco company in order to appease it and gain its support for the legislation?

Is Rabbi Berman, aware, for example, that the biggest supporter of this legislation is Philip Morris itself, which desperately wants the legislation because it will help it build a monopoly, secure its market share, allow it to increase its market share by finally marketing reduced exposure risk tobacco products that may well deceive people into thinking they are at reduced risk when they are not, and protect it from any damaging future litigation?

My guess is that the Rabbi, along with the other religious leaders, have been deceived by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids' propaganda and are not aware of the extent to which this legislation has been watered down through compromises inserted to protect the profit and security of the nation's leading tobacco company.

It's perhaps understandable. The legislation itself is long and difficult to read through and interpret - possibly more difficult than interpreting a Talmudic passage. I don't blame anyone for failing to understand the extent of the loopholes in the bill.

I therefore think that the major anti-smoking organizations which are supporting this legislation - the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, and American Heart Association - have a responsibility to educate groups such as these religious leaders about the truth behind the legislation, the loopholes it contains, and the reasons why those loopholes are present in the bills. This is a responsibility that so far as I can tell, these groups have completely shirked up to this point.

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