Let the FDA oversee tobacco

Congress is closer than ever to bringing tobacco under federal regulation.

For more than a decade, antismoking advocates have pushed federal regulation of tobacco products. Oversight could, for instance, ban candy-flavored cigarettes aimed at youths. Now Congress can make this happen – if the effort isn't snuffed out by the White House and the industry.

In the 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration tried to crack down on cigarette sales to minors. It was thwarted by a Supreme Court ruling in 2000, which narrowly found that the FDA did not have the legal authority to regulate tobacco as a drug, even though tobacco products contain nicotine, are addictive, and constitute a significant public health threat. Only Congress could give the FDA the power it sought, the court ruled.

Since then, lawmakers have tried and failed to do this. Now they really can – if they don't get rolled by opponents (the tobacco industry has so far donated more than $2 million to Democratic and GOP federal campaigns this election cycle).

Last week, a House committee passed a bill that gives the FDA power over the sale, advertising, and distribution of tobacco products. A similar bill passed a Senate committee last year. More than half the members of Congress have cosponsored the bills. That's plenty of support to move the legislation to the floor of each chamber for a vote this year.

But the White House objects, along with lawmakers from tobacco country and Reynolds American, producer of the Camel brand and candy-flavored cigarettes.

They say the FDA is too overburdened with other duties to add tobacco. And the White House argues that regulation will give the false impression that tobacco smoking is safe – as if keeping tobacco outside oversight makes it safer.

A recent UN report found smoking was the leading cause of preventable death in the last century and projects a billion premature deaths because of it in this one. In the US, 18 percent of adult Americans still smoke daily, and coming up right behind them are 18 percent of youths who have used tobacco at least once in the past 30 days.

The House bill gives the FDA significant means of reducing smoking, especially among young users, who become 90 percent of adult smokers. The bill, for instance, would ban cigarettes with flavors such as grape. Retailers would have to card young people trying to buy tobacco.

The bill requires bigger and more effective warning labels, and gives the FDA the ability to remove misleading health claims and make industry research public. It also would regulate ingredients such as habit-forming nicotine.

Opponents have a point that the FDA is overwhelmed and in "fire-fighting mode," as its own study has found. But the solution is to fix the FDA, not blind it to smoke.

Regrettable compromises have made the House bill acceptable to other tobacco interests. It exempts flavor-enhancing menthol, used by Philip Morris, which supports the legislation. Nicotine can be reduced, but not banned. Companies selling smokeless tobacco can offer free samples in limited venues, such as auto races. And regulation may – may – end up shielding the industry from lawsuits.

But compromise is how things get done in Washington. The nation has waited too long for regulation of tobacco. Now is the time.

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