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Bill puts tobacco under FDA supervision

Although not perfect, the legislation would subject the industry to the regulatory control of the Food and Drug Administration.

June 10, 2009

Food has to meet certain specifications to be labeled as "light," but there are no such restrictions on cigarettes. Consumers can read the label to find out the ingredients in shampoo that goes on their hair, but not in the smoke that goes in their lungs. If matters proceed as expected today, the U.S. Senate will pass legislation allowing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products in ways that it should have been doing for years.

For the first time, tobacco companies would have to report to the FDA what's in their products. The agency could keep them from labeling cigarettes as light (research shows that such cigarettes have no health benefits over regular cigarettes). It also would be authorized to require changes in advertising, ingredients lists on packs of cigarettes and more clearly worded warning labels. In Britain, for example, each pack carries bigger, more boldly printed labels on both sides with such dramatic statements as "Smoking kills" and "Smoking can cause a slow and painful death."

The House already has approved an almost identical measure by a nearly 3-1 margin. The Senate should waste no time passing the legislation.

The bill doesn't do everything it should -- no cigarette bill that tobacco giant Philip Morris helped design, as it did this one, was going to be appropriately restrictive. The FDA would be unable to ban cigarettes or nicotine, though it would be able to regulate the levels of that addictive substance. Although the bill prohibits flavorings that can make cigarettes more palatable to beginners -- chocolate, pineapple and cloves, to name a few -- conspicuously absent from the list is menthol, by far the most popular flavoring. Menthol also, for reasons that remain unclear, is particularly popular among African Americans; menthol brands account for three-fourths of the cigarettes smoked by this group and one-fourth of those smoked in this country.

But the bill specifically authorizes the FDA to ban menthol; in fact, it directs the agency to make consideration of such a ban the top priority for its scientific advisory panel on cigarettes. Menthol softens the harshness of cigarette smoke; banning it -- which we hope would come quickly -- might do more to reduce smoking than any other single FDA action.

For years, there have been various legislative attempts to place the tobacco industry under meaningful regulatory control. With 443,000 deaths a year linked to tobacco use in the United States, along with $100 billion in healthcare costs, the country can't afford to wait any longer.

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