Monday, April 30, 2012

Senator Dick Durbin Urges FDA to Ban Flavored Cigars to Close Loophole in Tobacco Act; Wins 2012 Hypocrisy Award in the Process

Last week, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to close a loophole in the Tobacco Act, enacted in 2009, by banning flavored cigars. The Tobacco Act banned flavored cigarettes, but not flavored cigars. To close this loophole, which Senator Durbin said is being exploited by tobacco companies to attract youth to tobacco use, Senator Durbin is calling on the FDA to extend the flavoring ban to cigars.

According to a statement on Senator Durbin's web site, entitled "Durbin, Lautenberg Announce Committee Approval of Provision to Encourage FDA Ban on Flavored Cigars":

"“In 2009, President Obama signed an important new law – the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act – that expanded the authority of the FDA to regulate all tobacco products. Because the law banned flavored cigarettes, many companies turned to flavored cigars to help attract and retain young customers. Cigars with candy-like flavorings such as strawberry, watermelon, vanilla and chocolate are marketed to young people, and get them hooked on this deadly and addictive habit at a young age. This provision encourages the FDA to assert its authority and take the necessary steps to curb the use of these dangerous products,” Durbin said.

"“The emergence of flavored cigars is a transparent effort by Big Tobacco to work around the new tobacco control law.  These flavored cigars are clearly designed to attract young adults and hook the next generation of tobacco users from an early age.  This amendment is an important step to ensure the FDA uses its full authority to place reasonable standards on the tobacco industry and keep our kids healthy and safe,” Lautenberg said."

"Although the Tobacco Control Act banned flavored cigarettes, some companies are avoiding the ban by marketing their products as flavored cigars, which are not prohibited by law."

The Rest of the Story

The exemption of flavored cigars is hardly the only, or the most important loophole in the Tobacco Act as it relates to the banning of flavored tobacco products that may appeal to children. The most important loophole is the exemption of menthol cigarettes, which - unlike the cherry, pineapple, banana, and raspberry cigarette flavorings which were banned - are actually smoked by a substantial proportion of youth smokers, about 50% to be exact.

This exemption of menthol cigarettes in the Tobacco Act is largely a result of Senator Durbin's efforts, as he helped coordinate the negotiations between the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Philip Morris which led to the Act. Senator Durbin, along with the health groups, were opposed to an amendment which would have removed the menthol exemption. Apparently, he isn't as committed to banning products that "attract young adults and hook the next generation of tobacco users" as he claims to be.

If Senator Durbin were truly committed to banning products that "attract young adults and hook the next generation of tobacco users," then certainly he would be including in his demand to the FDA an insistence that the agency also ban menthol cigarettes, since these are flavored cigarette products with widespread appeal to youth smokers and which have been demonstrated to play a significant role in the smoking initiation process by making early smoking experiences more pleasant (menthol is an anaesthetic which soothes the airways and decreases the harshness and irritation produced by smoke, which is especially important in not turning youth away during their initial experiences with cigarettes).

While I am not necessarily arguing here that menthol cigarettes should be banned, I am pointing out that once a politician stands up and argues that he is a champion for the public's health because he is committed to getting rid of flavored tobacco products that appeal widely to young people, that politician is a complete hypocrite if he does not also push for the removal of menthol-flavored cigarettes from the market.

Moreover, why is Senator Durbin not calling on the FDA to ban Marlboro, Camel, and Newport cigarettes? After all, if the criterion for justifying the banning of a tobacco product is that it should be banned if it appeals widely to young people, then certainly Marlboro, Camel, and Newport should be the very first products to go since they account for about 90% of the cigarettes smoked by youth. These three brands are overwhelmingly popular among youth, have widespread appeal among these young smokers, and clearly are getting youth "hooked on this deadly and addictive habit at a young age," just as Senator Durbin claims watermelon cigars are doing.

For this reason, I am awarding Senator Durbin the 2012 Rest of the Story's Hypocrisy of the Year Award. This is quite an accomplishment, especially considering that we are only four months into the year. However, I am so impressed with this degree of hypocrisy that I cannot imagine that it will be topped in this calendar year.

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