Congress must help people who could be lured into an addiction they don't need – and may not want. In coming days, the House will vote on regulating tobacco as a drug, with Senate action soon after – but all under threat of a White House veto. Will lawmakers stand up and assist smokers – and would-be smokers – to make the right choice?
The political climate is certainly ripe for federal action on nicotine.
John McCain pledged last week that one of his top goals if elected president would be to help people quit smoking (as he did himself in 1980). During his campaign, Barack Obama has set an example with an effort to quit. Also, last week, billionaires Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg announced they would spend $500 million to end tobacco use around the world.
Such moves against smoking aren't only aimed at preventing harm to smokers and their families. They also help people realize they can – and must – resist an addiction that seems to give them no choice but to act as victims to a temptation for a temporary pleasure. Those who have quit smoking know real pleasure lies in mastery over such temptation.
Government has a role in restricting companies that peddle this weed, especially when the industry purposely enhances the level of nicotine delivered in each cigarette, as recently revealed in a study by the Harvard School of Public Health.
Past government steps against tobacco, such as warnings on cigarette packs and bans on sales to minors and on smoking in public places, have helped greatly reduce the level of smoking in the United States. But now Congress has an opportunity to further that progress by giving regulatory powers over tobacco to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
It won't be easy. The tobacco industry spends millions each election season to influence Capitol Hill and the White House. The public has a stake in overriding that influence by asking their lawmaker to vote for the pending measure.
The House bill would not ban tobacco. After all, the leaf can be easily grown and a ban might prove as unwieldy as Prohibition. Rather it would give the FDA authority over the sale, advertising, and distribution of tobacco products, with a focus on industry practices that lure young people into smoking. It would, for example, ban fruit-flavored cigarettes. In fact, FDA control over tobacco additives and misleading advertising would provide the real teeth in preventing addiction.
However, the bill doesn't call for a ban on menthol cigarettes, which sell well among blacks. The FDA would need to counter this lapse – included in the bill for several political reasons – if it is given authority over tobacco.
To make sure that FDA regulation doesn't create an impression that smoking is government approved, the bill also prohibits the industry from advertising that it has the agency's support.
This legislation has been years in the making. Congress must resist the industry's moneyed influence over this bill and approve it before adjourning Aug. 10.
More than four decades have passed since the federal government found smoking to be harmful. Now it must act to help users and young people avoid a habit that many wish they didn't have.