Monday, March 09, 2009

House Energy and Commerce Committee Demonstrates that FDA Tobacco Legislation is Purely About Political Rhetoric, Not Substance

During its markup of the FDA tobacco legislation (a.k.a., the secret deal between the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Philip Morris), the House Energy and Commerce Committee apparently rejected a series of amendments, some of which would have strengthened the bill. Apparently, one of the amendments which was rejected would have given the FDA the authority to eventually eliminate nicotine from cigarettes, rather than simply to mandate lower levels of nicotine as the proposed bill allows.

According to an article at MedPage Today, Representative Michael Burgess (R-TX), a physician, blasted the Committee for rejecting the amendment that would have allowed the FDA to eliminate nicotine from cigarettes, rather than merely mandate reductions in nicotine levels. Rep. Burgess suggested that the rejection of this amendment showed that the real intent of the bill's supporters is not to actually protect the public and especially children from cigarette addiction, but instead, to create a new federal bureaucracy by extracting more money from cigarette companies.

Rep. Burgess was quoted as stating: "If our true goal is to limit the public health exposure to cigarette smoke then we would take away the thing that makes the cigarette addictive. If our goal is simply to collect more tax dollars from cigarette companies, then let's be honest about what we're doing."

The Rest of the Story

The current legislation, which now moves on to the full House of Representatives, allows the FDA to mandate reductions in nicotine levels, but not to eliminate the nicotine. This, unfortunately, is a recipe for disaster because reducing nicotine levels will only increase the consumption of cigarettes. Smokers will need to smoke more in order to obtain the same dose of nicotine. But higher consumption means higher exposure to tar, and with that comes increasing rates of disease and death (especially from cancer and lung disease).

Short of eliminating nicotine from cigarettes, the only way to regulate nicotine to actually improve the public's health would be to mandate increases in nicotine levels. By raising the nicotine to tar ratio in cigarettes, smokers would smoke less and their dose of tar would decrease, thus reducing rates of disease and death, especially from cancer and lung disease.

So the irony is that by rejecting this amendment, the supporters of the legislation have demonstrated that their intent is for FDA to lower, but not eliminate the nicotine. In other words, they have clearly expressed an intent that the FDA not protect the public from cigarette addiction. The intent is not to reduce the cigarette companies' ability to addict children and adolescents through the use of a powerfully addictive drug.

Instead, the intent is clearly to make it appear to the public that policy makers are doing something to protect the public's health, when in fact these politicians know that they have actually precluded the one action that the FDA could take which would greatly reduce youth smoking and thus save "countless lives."

In other words, this is all propaganda and rhetoric. There is no substance here. There is no intent to actually protect the public's health and protect children from addiction. The goal is more along the lines of what Dr. Burgess suggested: to extract money to set up a federal bureaucracy which will make it look like the Congress is doing something to address the tobacco problem when in fact what Congress is about to do is to institutionalize addiction to nicotine and death from cigarettes, and to add insult to injury, to add the federal government's seal of approval to this death and destruction.

I am not necessarily arguing here, by the way, that Congress should give the FDA the authority to eliminate nicotine from cigarettes. I don't favor FDA regulation of tobacco products in the first place and I don't believe that the FDA is the right agency to take on such a role, since its job is to ensure that the drugs it does approve are safe for use by consumers. However, what I am taking issue with is policy makers who say one thing and do another. In other words, what I'm saying is that the supporters of the FDA legislation are hypocrites.

At very least, if you are going to come out in front of the American people and tell them that you are taking a stand against Big Tobacco, ending special protections for the tobacco companies, and saving countless lives by taking away the cigarette companies' ability to addict kids to their products, then have the courage to vote for the amendment which would do that.

Not long ago, Senator Kennedy bemoaned the fact that "Big Tobacco is addicted to addicting millions of young smokers into lifetimes of illness and early death. Congress has been an accomplice in the travesty because of the success of the tobacco lobby in blocking real reform." Senator Kennedy told the American public that his FDA tobacco legislation would address this problem.

But that very legislation precludes the ability of the federal government to prevent the addiction of millions of young smokers and makes Congress a permanent accomplice in the travesty. It is the FDA legislation supporters who are in fact blocking real reform by providing the tobacco industry with unprecedented special protections not shared by any other industry regulated by the federal government.

The 39 members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who voted for the FDA tobacco legislation and against the amendment which would have given the legislation its only real teeth have done a tremendous disservice to their constituents and to the American people. They are not worthy of praise, but they are worthy of attention. After all, they are first-class hypocrites.

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