Thursday, June 11, 2009

Senate Votes to Give Federal Seal of Approval to Cigarettes and Provide Unprecedented Special Protections to Big Tobacco

On a 79-17 vote taken moments ago, the United States Senate approved the FDA tobacco legislation that was crafted by Philip Morris and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids through a Congressionally-mediated negotiation. It will almost certainly be signed by President Obama into law, although some minor differences between the Senate and House versions still need to be worked out.

The bill gives unprecedented special protections to Big Tobacco, tying the FDA's hands in the most important areas in which it could actually act to make a dent in smoking rates and product safety, and allowing it only to take actions that will have little to no impact.

For example, the legislation allows the FDA to reduce the levels of nicotine in cigarettes, but not to eliminate the nicotine. Reducing nicotine levels will only lead to smokers smoking more to obtain the same nicotine dose. They will inhale more tar and thus suffer greater health damage.

Another example: all flavorings in cigarettes - such as chocolate, strawberry, banana, pineapple, and cherry - are banned. These flavors are hardly ever used in cigarettes. However, menthol - the one flavoring that is actually used to help entice and addict literally millions of smokers - is exempt from the ban.

The legislation allows the FDA to put minor restrictions on cigarette advertising, yet the agency is precluded from taking the two actions that might actually help keep cigarettes out of the hands of our nation's children: increasing the age of sale of tobacco and restricting the places where tobacco is sold.

The bill will require the cigarette companies to disclose the ingredients and constituents of cigarettes and tobacco smoke. As if that is really going to make a difference in people's decisions about smoking. Moreover, the majority of constituents of tobacco smoke are unknown, so it's not like the public will now understand exactly what they are inhaling.

While existing cigarettes will be grandfathered into the market, new products will find it almost impossible to enter the market. And while truly safer cigarettes will have no chance of competing in the marketplace because there is no chance of their being successfully marketed, reduced exposure cigarettes which may not actually reduce disease rates will suddenly find it possible to enter the market, opening up the tobacco market for the first time in decades.

Worst of all, the legislation will give an FDA seal of approval to cigarettes, undermining decades of efforts to educate the public about the severe hazards of smoking. It will create the perception that cigarettes are safer, when in fact, they will be no safer and will still be killing hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. But now, they will be doing so with the blessing of the United States government.

The federal government will now be a willing partner - knowingly complicit - in the tobacco epidemic.

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