Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Democrat Control or Not, U.S. Congress Not a Source of Sound Tobacco Policy; Politics, Not Health is the Primary Concern of All Politicians

The sad lesson of the early days of the now Democrat-controlled Congress and presidency is that for all politicians, politics -- and not the public's health -- is the primary concern.

While tobacco control practitioners have had a tendency to blame Republicans for lack of progress in federal tobacco policy, the early days of the 111th Congress suggest that the change in political party power is not going to be associated with the emergence of sound tobacco control policy. If anything, the power change opens the door for the movement of weak legislation that will likely cause more harm than good.

One of the first bills enacted by the 111th Congress made the absurd decision to tie the financial solvency of the children's health insurance program (SCHIP) to continued high levels of cigarette consumption. What the Congress has basically said to smokers is: keep on puffing-- we need it for the children.

Not only has this action removed the incentive for any serious action that would reduce federal cigarette tax revenues, but it has also made the federal government financial partners with the tobacco industry in the cigarette epidemic.

Now, we have learned that the 111th Congress is going to shove FDA tobacco legislation down the throats of the American public, without even so much as a public hearing to scrutinize the deal that has been forged between the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Philip Morris.

As I have argued, the legislation, which is a dream come true for Philip Morris, ought to be entitled the Marlboro Monopoly Act. It essentially assures Philip Morris of the major share of the domestic cigarette market through a de facto freeze on the introduction of new (and potentially competitive) cigarette brands into the market. The legislation is a public health disaster, which is going to institutionalize tobacco production and use, put the government in the business of defrauding the American consumer, tie up much-needed FDA resources and hamper its ability to conduct its normal activities, undermine the very mission of the FDA, put the government in the position of approving and endorsing cigarettes for use by the American public, end litigation as a serious threat to the industry, end harm reduction as a tobacco control strategy, ensure that no truly safer cigarette will ever be developed, and decimate the state and local tobacco control movement.

While politicians, including chief House sponsor Representative Henry Waxman, are touting the bill as a major step forward for decreasing youth smoking, the bill actually precludes the few things that the FDA could do to actually make a dent in smoking rates. The loopholes placed into the bill by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids to appease Philip Morris serve to block the FDA from taking precisely those few actions it could have otherwise taken to reduce youth smoking.

Similarly, while the bill is being touted as a measure that will make cigarettes safer, the bill actually precludes the one approach - harm reduction - which might actually result in safer cigarettes.

Instead, the FDA is turned into a burgeoning bureaucracy of government employees who are going to waste their time (and the public's money) in a pointless attempt to try to make cigarettes safer by regulating certain of its more than 4,000 constituents.

At the same time, these very same bureaucrats are going to be in the business of approving cigarettes and blessing them with the federal government's seal of approval -- a dream come true for all the tobacco companies.

What are our policy makers, especially those who like Representative Waxman have positioned themselves as champions of the public's health, thinking?

Unfortunately, what has become all too clear to me is that politicians are irredeemably motivated primarily by politics and political concerns, not by concerns for the protection of the public's health. It crosses party lines and is not restricted even to those politicians who have accepted tobacco money. I guess it is, ultimately, a mark of all politicians by the virtue of their having entered politics.

The irony of it all is that the public's health would be a lot better off without any federal legislation than with the Marlboro Monopoly Act.

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