Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Representative Waxman, Champion of FDA Tobacco Legislation, Quoted as Saying that He Wouldn't Change Bill Even if There Were No Political Constraints

As the House prepares to pass the FDA tobacco legislation today, Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), one of the chief architects of the legislation (who brokered the deal between Philip Morris and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids) was quoted in a New York Times article today as stating that he wouldn't change anything in the bill even if there were no political constraints.

As quoted in the article in response to a question about how he could promote a bill that is supported by Philip Morris, Representative Waxman stated: "Philip Morris is supporting it for their own reasons. This is a good bill and a strong bill. I don’t think we’ve made any concessions that we’d want to change."

The Rest of the Story

I interpret this statement as an indication that Representative Waxman is happy with all the provisions in the bill and that there is nothing in the bill he would want to change, even if not for political constraints, such as the perceived need to maintain Philip Morris' support for the legislation.

In other words, Representative Waxman is arguing that Philip Morris' support for the bill is just a coincidence, and that there are not compromises in the bill that appease the interests of the nation's leading tobacco company at the expense of the protection of the public's health. He is saying that the provisions of the bill are not political compromises that were necessary. Instead, everything in the bill is the way he would have wanted it anyway.

This is a very significant development because it demonstrates to me that Representative Waxman - if he meant what he said to the New York Times - is actually not primarily interested in protecting the health of the American public, but instead, is primarily interested in making sure that there is no substantial dent in smoking rates that might harm the interests of the company who he invited to the table in the negotiations he brokered to craft this legislation.

Apparently, Representative Waxman belives that nicotine should not be removed from cigarettes, since his bill precludes the FDA from eliminating nicotine in tobacco products. It may be fine to say that as a political compromise, you are going to tie the FDA's hands by making sure it does not require the elimination of nicotine from these products, but how can you say that this is not a political compromise? How can you argue that this is in the best interests of the public's health? How can you insert this compromise - which permanently institutionalizes nicotine - into the legislation, state that you have no problem with that provision, and at the same time proclaim yourself as the champion against Big Tobacco and for the public's health?

Similarly, Representative Waxman also apparently believes that precluding the FDA from increasing the age of legal sale of cigarettes to above age 18 is not a political compromise, and that it is in the best interests of the public's health. While we know that increasing the legal age of sale of tobacco is probably one of the few things the FDA could do that would actually make a dent in youth smoking, Waxman is ensuring that such a policy can never be implemented. And he apparently has no problem with that and wouldn't allow the FDA to set such a policy even if there were no political constraints involved.

Furthermore, Representative Waxman also apparently believes that while chocolate, strawberry, and banana must be banned from cigarettes, menthol is perfectly appropriate for cigarette companies to add to their products to entice young African Americans to smoke. Otherwise, the menthol exemption is certainly something he would want to change. Is he actually stating that the menthol exemption is appropriate for the protection of the public's health, rather than simply a compromise that was necessary to appease the interests of Philip Morris at the negotiating table?

Moreover, Representative Waxman also apparently is indicating that precluding the FDA from banning the sale of cigarettes at youth centers also makes sense, since the bill does not allow the FDA to ban the sale of cigarettes in any particular type of retail establishment. How is that not a political compromise?

The legislation requires that a tobacco industry representative sit on the advisory panel to guide the FDA in its regulations. How is that in the best interests of the public's health, rather than a political compromise? Is Representative Waxman actually saying that he thinks it is appropriate for the industry to oversee its own regulation?

I won't go into the rest of the many loopholes in the legislation that were clearly inserted to protect Philip Morris and retain its support for the bill, rather than to protect the public's health. In fact, Representative Waxman supported a much stronger piece of legislation several years ago that contained none of these concessions. Is he really stating that giving the FDA very limited authority over cigarettes is better than actually allowing the FDA to take the actions necessary and appropriate to protect the health of the American public?

It is a shame that Representative Waxman cannot simply admit that there are indeed concessions present in the legislation that are not in the best interests of the public's health, but that were perceived as necessary to maintain the support of Philip Morris, whose support was deemed necessary to allow this bill to go forward.

That the bill sells out the health of the African American community to protect tobacco industry profits is pitiful enough. To have the chief sponsor and architect of the legislation argue that it was his desire and intention to sell out the health of the African American community is very disturbing.

While I am critical of the menthol exemption in the bill, I could at least respect a politician who said: "Look - we needed to compromise to get this thing through. We weren't going to get a ban on menthol through, so we made this concession." I can understand and appreciate that. It's the nature of the political process. I might not agree with the compromise, but I can understand it.

However, what Waxman is implying instead is: "That was not a concession that we are unhappy about. We wouldn't have put the bill forward any other way, even if Philip Morris hadn't insisted upon the menthol exemption." If so, that is quite unfortunate, because how is Representative Waxman in a position to decide that keeping menthol in cigarettes is in the best interests of protecting the public's health?

He is certainly entitled to the opinion that menthol should remain in cigarettes, but if that's truly the case, then he should stop touting himself as a champion against Big Tobacco. Instead, he should start talking about himself as the Congressman who helped institutionalize tobacco addiction by protecting nicotine and menthol from elimination.

To be honest, knowing what I know about Representative Waxman, I don't believe he really believes what he is saying. I think he knows that there are compromises in the legislation that are detrimental to the public's health protection. I think he understands that removing nicotine from cigarettes and banning menthol would do a tremendous amount to protect the public's health. And I think the reason for the concessions in the bill is purely political - I don't believe Representative Waxman actually wants to protect the ability of the cigarette companies to addict the nation's young people. I think he feels that such a compromise was necessary to get the legislation through.

So why doesn't he just come forward and admit that there are concessions in the bill that represent political compromises?

Why pull the wool over the public's eyes?

The answer, I guess, is that he is firstly a politician and only secondly, a champion of the public's health. It's a sad, but true lesson for all of us to learn.

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