Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In Calling for Ban on Flavored Cigars, Senator Lautenberg Reaches a New Record Level of Hypocrisy

Last week, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) reiterated his call for a ban on flavored cigars. These products were not included in the Congressional ban on flavored cigarettes, which covers all candy and fruit flavorings such as strawberry, banana, acai, lemon, and pineapple, but exempts menthol.

According to his press release: "U.S. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) today reiterated his call for a ban on flavored cigars, which are surging in popularity among children and young adults. The 2011 National Youth Tobacco Survey released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that cigar smoking remains popular among high school students, even as overall tobacco use has declined. ... “Flavored cigars are designed to attract young adults, and the new CDC report indicates Big Tobacco is succeeding in its mission,” said Lautenberg.  “The federal government must use its full authority over the tobacco industry and ban flavored cigars before the next generation of tobacco users are hooked. The increase in cigar use is troubling, and we must continue to do everything we can to keep our kids healthy and safe.” The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 banned flavored cigarettes; however, 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 Lautenberg's efforts, as he was one of the champions of the negotiations between the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Philip Morris which led to the Act. Senator Lautenberg, along with the health groups, was opposed to an amendment which would have removed the menthol exemption. Apparently, he isn't as committed to banning products that attract youth and hook the next generation of tobacco users as he claims to be.

If Senator Lautenberg were truly committed to banning products that "are surging in popularity among children and young adults," 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 Lautenberg 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 surging in popularity among children and young adults," just as Senator Lautenberg claims flavored cigars are doing.

Remember that this is the same Senator who in March 2009, announced that he wanted the FDA to take electronic cigarettes -- which deliver essentially pure nicotine (with no tar or other tobacco constituents) -- off the market. At the same time, his legislation went into effect, which provided special protection to actual tobacco-containing cigarettes and ensured that this most toxic variety of cigarettes always remains on the market and continues to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans each year.

Senator Lautenberg's call for removing the electronic cigarette from the market, as well as for providing special protection - and government approval - for the much more toxic actual tobacco-containing cigarettes - was endorsed by the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

What Senator Lautenberg and the health groups tried to do is ban a much less harmful type of cigarette but give an official government seal of approval to the much more toxic one that we know is killing hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. The logic of these actions completely escapes me.

Of note, The Ashtray Blog pointed out that Senator Lautenberg is the recipient of more than $128,000 from pharmaceutical companies (in 2008 alone).

The only real threat that electronic cigarettes pose is not to the public's health, but to the profits of the pharmaceutical companies, which manufacture competing products (nicotine replacement therapy). If lots of smokers turn to electronic cigarettes, rather than pharmaceuticals, in order to try to quit smoking, then the pharmaceutical companies stand to lose lots of money. So perhaps it is not surprising that Senator Lautenberg is standing up to protect the financial interests of the pharmaceutical companies over the interests of the public's health.

Electronic cigarettes pose a threat to pharmaceutical smoking cessation aids precisely because the pharmaceutical aids are so dismally ineffective. The rates of successful smoking cessation with these pharmaceuticals is less than 10%. Thus, the overwhelming majority of smokers who try to quit using pharmaceutical aids are unsuccessful. Accordingly, there is a huge potential market for a nicotine delivery system (such as an electronic cigarette) that will be more popular with smokers. The fact that the e-cigarette system is similar to a cigarette may make it much more effective and popular for use among smokers who are trying to quit smoking.

Senator Lautenberg is already a member of the Colonel Benjamin Church Hypocrisy Hall of Shame. His call for a ban on flavored cigars, while at the same time he supported an exemption for menthol cigarettes, simply solidifies his position in the Hall.

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