By MICHAEL COLLINS
Scripps Howard News Service
June 15, 2009
The Senate is expected to vote as early as this week on a measure that would let the FDA regulate or even ban chemicals that are put in cigarettes, require larger warning labels on tobacco products. and place tougher restrictions on tobacco advertising.
The House has already approved its version of the bill. President Obama, a smoker who has talked publicly about his struggle to quit, has said he would sign the legislation into law.
Supporters say giving the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco is necessary to stop manufacturers from using additives that make cigarettes more addictive and to keep them from marketing their deadly products to children.
"I've been working in this field for 30 years, and the tobacco companies have never admitted that they have ever marketed to children, even when they were using cartoon characters in their ads," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Yet, "the evidence is overwhelming," Myers said. "Current marketing practices appeal to children and are seen more often by children than adults."
Questionable marketing by cigarette makers has turned off a lot of consumers and helped demonstrate the need for FDA regulation, said Jayne Brechwald, associate director of the American Lung Association in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, Calif.
"People have been exposed to so much deception in advertising and the manipulation of the cigarettes," Brechwald said. "The focus (of the bill) really isn't as much the risk of smoking cigarettes as it is the deception of the tobacco industry in trying to sell cigarettes to young people so they will become addicted. I thinks there's a readiness for (FDA regulation) now."
For years, government regulation of tobacco products was a step that Congress wasn't willing to take.
Anti-smoking groups began pushing for FDA regulation a decade ago against strong resistance from the tobacco lobby, which spent millions of dollars to fight off government intrusion and enlisted the help of some powerful allies in Congress.
But what once seemed implausible now appears inevitable because of a shift in attitudes about smoking and other factors.
Smoking has declined precipitously in the United States over the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2007, the national smoking rate among adults was 19.8 percent, down from 24 percent in 1998 and 28.1 percent in 1988.
"America has become essentially a nonsmoking nation," Myers said. "And the politics of tobacco has changed fundamentally. The vast majority of Americans support strong action to regulate tobacco, restrict where smoking is allowed and the strongest possible protections against marketing, particularly to youth."
Even cigarette maker Philip Morris, which once bitterly fought congressional efforts to let the FDA regulate tobacco, now says it would accept some government regulation.
To many, the company's acquiescence is an acknowledgement that the tobacco market is shrinking and regulation is unavoidable since many of the lawmakers in Congress who had stopped the government from getting involved have retired or have been defeated by voters.
Still, tobacco backers aren't going down without a fight. Some Republicans from tobacco-producing states are threatening to filibuster the legislation in the Senate. But Myers said the bill's supporters believe they have enough votes to prevent that from happening and to see that the measure is passed.
The legislation "is popular in every region of the country and among both conservatives and progressives," he said.
Cigarette packages have carried warning labels since 1964, when the Surgeon General determined smoking was a public health risk. But the FDA legislation would mandate bigger warning labels and require they include graphic images of the dangers of smoking.
Even with the decline in smoking, nearly 400,000 Americans die every year of tobacco-related diseases, according to the American Lung Association. Yet smoking opponents acknowledge that banning cigarettes outright isn't really an option.
"With over 40 million American smokers, it's not practical to think about a ban," Myers said. "What is practical is to reduce marketing that encourages kids to start, provide more assistance to those who want to quit and stop the tobacco companies from manipulating the products in ways that make them more addictive and unduly harmful."
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