FDA and Tobacco

AS Congress prepares to consider President Clinton's health-care reform package, it should not lose sight of a bill already on its agenda: the Fairness in Tobacco and Nicotine Regulation Act of 1993.

The measure, sponsored by Reps. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma and Dick Durbin (D) of Ohio, would give the Food and Drug Administration regulatory jurisdiction over the manufacture, promotion, advertisement, and labeling of tobacco products. (See View from Capitol Hill, Page 20.)

Such a move is overdue. While we discourage the use of tobacco products, we recognize that such use is a matter of individual choice. That choice, however, needs to be as informed as possible, especially when the products are deemed to represent a significant threat to human health and when the active ingredient is an addictive drug. The manufacturers of these products should be just as responsible for full disclosure as those who give us spaghetti sauce or breakfast cereal. Given the nature of the products, it makes sense to bring tobacco regulation under the agency responsible for overseeing drugs.

The legislation's provisions include:

* Establishing 18 as a federal minimum age for buying tobacco products.

* Banning distribution of free samples and discount coupons. The ban would extend to sponsorship of athletic, cultural, or other public events if the tobacco company's logo is displayed.

* Requiring that packages list all chemical additives and other components of the product and its smoke.

* Prohibiting products from carrying - directly or implicitly - health claims unless approved, after testing, by the United States secretary of health and human services.

Some of these provisions, such as the federal age limit, are problematic. The average age when tobacco use begins is 13. Even with sanctions such as removing vending machines, it is unclear that the FDA will enforce age restrictions better than states.

Another uncertainty is funding. It is one thing to expand an agency's authority. It is quite another to supply money to meet new mandates. Already, the Clinton-Gore drive to re-invent government would shift responsibility for meat and poultry inspections to the FDA.

Still, the bill deserves support. It represents sensible regulations in the public interest.

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