Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Support of FDA Tobacco Legislation is Devoid of Substance; Television Debate Between Jacob Sullum of Reason and Dick Woodruff of ACS is Very Revealing

In a news segment on CNBC yesterday, the station featured a debate on the FDA tobacco legislation between Jacob Sullum, senior editor at Reason Magazine (who opposes the legislation), and Dick Woodruff, senior director of the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network (who supports the legislation).

I urge readers to listen to this segment, because I find it very revealing. Beyond the fact that Woodruff was quite rude (interrupting Sullum on the first question, which was directed to Sullum, and answering the question himself - Sullum waited patiently and courteously until Woodruff was finished and he was called on), the most telling thing to me was the fact that the American Cancer Society representative offered no substance to support his position, while Sullum offered several compelling substantive points which were not addressed by his opponent.

The only point which the American Cancer Society seemed capable of making was that this is "very important legislation" that will help the kids. Woodruff repeated this argument over and over, but offered no argument or explanation of why this legislation is important or how it will protect kids. He asserted that the legislation will stop tobacco industry marketing to youths, but offered no explanation for how that would occur. He asserted that the legislation would curtail youths' addiction to cigarettes, but offered no explanation for how that would occur. In sum, he presented no evidence to back up any of his assertions about the legislation. It was support without substance.

In contrast, Sullum made several very specific arguments, backed by evidence, to argue that the legislation would actually be harmful to the protection of consumers.

First, the legislation would harm consumers by allowing the FDA to reduce (but not eliminate) nicotine levels. Research shows that this would result in people smoking more, and thus being exposed to higher doses of toxic and carcinogenic tar. The result would be increased disease and death among smokers.

Second, the legislation would harm consumers by making it impossible for safer cigarettes to enter the market. The legislation places insurmountable obstacles to the introduction and approval of safer cigarettes. It essentially freezes the current market, ensuring that competition from smaller companies which might seek to market safer cigarettes is stifled. In addition to protecting the leading company - Philip Morris - from competition, the legislation essentially ensures that the current mix of cigarettes on the market will be sustained in perpetuity. The legislation stifles what might otherwise be a free market competition to produce a truly reduced risk cigarette.

Third, the legislation would harm consumers by interfering with the accurate communication of relative risks of various tobacco products. For example, companies could not state that smokeless tobacco is a less hazardous alternative to smoking cigarettes, even if they could support that statement with extensive documentation.

Interestingly, Woodruff failed to respond substantively to any of these points. He merely reiterated his rhetoric about how this is important legislation that will protect kids.

What is so frustrating to me about this interview is that it seems the anti-smoking movement is no longer able to respond substantively to its critics. It is no longer able to provide a science-based, evidence-based argument in support of a federal tobacco control policy it favors. It has become a purely political movement, advancing political rhetoric that is devoid of scientific, rational, or evidential substance.

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