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Tobacco's Toll on Women

Lung cancer is 'far ahead' of breast cancer as a killer, report says. FDA oversight of cigarettes is urged.


WASHINGTON — Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, releasing a surgeon general's report describing the grim toll that smoking has taken on women, said Tuesday that he personally favors giving the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over cigarettes.

The Bush administration has not taken a position on the issue--and it even chided Thompson just weeks ago for speaking out on it before the president does.

But the new HHS chief, a longtime Wisconsin governor, is accustomed, as are other governors and chief executives in the new Cabinet, to being his own boss.

"Speaking for myself, I think tobacco should be regulated," he said during a news conference with Surgeon General David Satcher.

The fodder for Thompson's remarks was the surgeon general's annual report on smoking--this year devoted to women--which found that since its last report on the subject in 1980, 3 million women have died of smoking-related diseases.

"Lung cancer was once rare among women. Now it's far ahead of breast cancer in cancer deaths among women," Satcher said. "This year, there will be 27,000 more deaths among women from lung cancer than from breast cancer."

Women now account for 39% of all smoking deaths--more than double the rate in 1965, when the first landmark smoking report was released, he said. In 1999, 165,000 women died prematurely of smoking-related diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

Although a smaller percentage of women smoke today than in 1965 (22% now, compared with 33.9% then) the drop is minor compared with the decline among men during the same period (from 51.9% to 26.4%).

Also troubling, Satcher said, is that smoking increased among both boys and girls in the 1990s. In 2000, 29.7% of high school senior girls and 32.8% of high school senior boys reported having smoked within the last month. The lone exception: African American teenage girls, whose cigarette usage remains "significantly lower" than other teenage groups, Satcher said.

"We wish we knew why," Satcher said, because researchers could then apply that knowledge to approaches aimed at keeping other teens from smoking.

Thompson, who was criticized during his confirmation by anti-smoking groups for having financial ties to tobacco companies, has sold his tobacco stock since becoming secretary and has taken a hard line against cigarettes, frequently denouncing, in his words, "the evils of smoking."

Earlier this month, after similar remarks about giving the FDA tobacco oversight, the White House reminded him gently that he should let President Bush speak first. But that didn't stop him Tuesday from repeating his own opinion, much to the delight of anti-smoking organizations.

"He was being careful, but he still said it," said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "This is a very important step. The secretary has made it clear that . . . [he wants] strong federal regulation of tobacco."

The controversy over regulation of tobacco as a drug began during the Clinton administration, when FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler promulgated rules to control cigarettes. But the tobacco industry took the matter to court. Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided on a 5-4 vote a year ago that the FDA overstepped its bounds and did not have the statutory authority to regulate tobacco or restrict tobacco ads.

There are at least four bills pending in Congress to grant the FDA tobacco oversight authority. Thompson did not endorse any, saying that "when Congress passes, we will try to implement it, or we will implement it."

Asked whether the president supports this position, Thompson said, "I have not discussed it with the White House."

Thompson said he still opposes any attempts by Congress to increase federal taxes on tobacco products as a way to increase prices to discourage smoking.

"There is no question this administration is here to cut taxes, not raise them," he said, adding that such tax increases "are better left to the states."

Earlier, in a breakfast session with reporters, Thompson said he expects to soften the financial burden on health care providers posed by medical privacy rules offered by President Clinton.

"I am fairly certain at this point--without saying for sure--there will be some modifications to simplify and to lessen the financial burden." Thompson added that he has heard from many people about "the tremendous burden" and "the tremendous cost" that the rules would impose.

He told the gathering that he was learning the limits of the power of a Cabinet secretary. "I found out you have to check with everybody before you move. I've already been in the doghouse several times because I haven't done that."


Times staff writer Robert A. Rosenblatt contributed to this story.

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