Clinton Proposal an Attempt To Snuff Out Teen Smoking

Declaring nicotine addictive may give FDA power to curb its sale

The Marlboro Man is now a drug addict.

That is the message behind President Clinton's decision to declare nicotine - an ingredient in cigarettes and other tobacco products - an addictive drug.

The president's executive order, expected today, is designed to give the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) legal authority to regulate the sale and advertising of tobacco products to children.

Supporters of the move say it may help to undermine the glamour of cigarettes among the estimated 1 million teenagers each year who become new smokers.

"In the long run, the greatest effect of the president's announcement may be on the public's perception of smokers," says John Banzhaf, executive director of the advocacy group Action On Smoking and Health in Washington. "Images of macho men and slim, sexy women may give way to a reality of drug addicts so desperate for their next fix that they cannot even go the day without it, as most heroin and cocaine addicts do."

If the proposed regulations withstand the anticipated vigorous court challenges, they would empower the FDA to limit the sale and promotion of cigarettes - particularly to children.

Historic move

"This rule is the first national policy in history to stop tobacco companies from marketing their deadly products to kids," says Kathryn Kahler Vose, spokeswoman at the nonprofit group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington. "The FDA rule can be the straw that breaks Joe Camel's back," she says.

Tobacco industry officials are vowing to fight the Clinton proposal, saying the FDA lacks the necessary jurisdiction to regulate cigarette sales and advertising.

Tom Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the tobacco firm Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., in Louisville, Ky., says the measure is aimed ultimately at banning cigarettes.

This action comes at a bad time for the industry. Two weeks ago, a jury in Jacksonville, Fla., found in favor of a retired air traffic controller who attributed his lung cancer to years of smoking cigarettes. Brown & Williamson says it will appeal the $750,000 lawsuit. The case is one of scores of individual and class-action suits filed in courthouses across the country by smokers claiming the tobacco industry withheld key information about the addictive nature of cigarettes. At least 13 states have also filed their own suits, seeking reimbursement for the millions of dollars they have paid through state health programs for the treatment of smoking-related illnesses.

Political observers say the president may have timed the announcement of the FDA proposals to help offset the impact of a damaging report released earlier this week showing that drug use among teens had doubled during the Clinton administration.

Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole had cited the report as a "national tragedy," and suggested the administration had a wishy-washy drug policy.

Polls show that Clinton's position on tobacco and children enjoys broad public support. The Clinton stand against the tobacco industry is in contrast to that of Mr. Dole, who in an interview last month said he wasn't certain nicotine was an addictive drug.

The Clinton plan is aimed at limiting the sale of cigarettes to adults only. It would achieve that by banning billboard ads near schools and playgrounds, by eliminating cigarette vending machines, and by requiring smokers to present proof of age to purchase cigarettes. The proposal also calls for an industry-funded $150 million-a-year campaign to warn children of the health risks attributed to smoking.

Ms. Vose of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says the tobacco industry relies on luring teens into smoking to compensate for the 2 million smokers each year who either quit or die.

Research shows the average age that Americans begin smoking is 13, she says. According to government statistics, 61 million Americans are smokers, and 4.5 million of them are between the ages of 12 to 17.

The same drug report criticized by Dole earlier this week says in part: "Youths age 12 to 17 who smoked were about eight times as likely to use illicit drugs and 11 times as likely to drink heavily as nonsmoking youths.''

Uphill battle

Mr. Banzhaf says that the tobacco industry will face an uphill battle in court over the FDA rules because of evidence that has emerged in recent years that cigarrettemakers themselves considered nicotine an addictive drug.

They will find it difficult, he says, to argue in court that the measures impose an unfair economic hardship on cigarettemakers, since the steps are intended to curb only sales to children.

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