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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A victory against tobacco

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IT IS an odious victory, yet a victory nonetheless. After millions of premature deaths from cigarettes since the first surgeon general's warnings on packs in the mid-1960s, the House voted last week, 298-112, to give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco.

Henry Waxman, the California crusader on this issue for nearly three decades, called the vote historic, though "it has taken us far too long to get to this point . . . FDA is the only agency with the right combination of scientific expertise, regulatory experience, and public health mission to oversee these products effectively. "

The measure now heads to the Senate where it will be championed by Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who has declared tobacco "the most lethal of all consumer products."

Kennedy will face some opposition by tobacco-state colleagues such as North Carolina's Richard Burr. But even the number one recipient of tobacco campaign contributions on Capitol Hill, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, acknowledged earlier this year the tidal wave of health concerns about tobacco, citing public no-smoking ordinances throughout his state. "While we are still an important tobacco state, it is not as pervasive as it used to be," McConnell said. ". . . The tobacco culture has largely ended in Kentucky."

The odious part is that tobacco culture is not going away anytime soon. Tobacco still has its tentacles reaching insidiously into state and local politics. Take North Dakota, for instance. Last month, a bid to ban tobacco products on state college campuses failed and last week, the North Dakota House voted down a bill to ban smoking in cars by adults if children under 16 are inside. The law was proposed by middle school children in Williston. One Republican, Representative Darrell Nottestad of Grand Forks, supported the bill saying, "An infant in a smoking car has no one to speak for it."

Congress and the Obama administration have done a great service by jacking up the federal cigarette tax this month by 62 cents a pack. As many studies have shown, raising taxes cuts smoking rates. But that still leaves plenty of poor countries to prey on and despite tobacco-control initiatives in many countries, smoking-related deaths are currently on track to rise from its current 5.4 million a year to 8 million people a year, according to the World Health Organization. The CEO of Philip Morris International, Louis Camilleri, earned $37 million in compensation last year, a 68 percent raise. Unlike Detroit car executives who were shamed out of their corporate jets, Camilleri's compensation includes personal use of the company jet, the Associated Press reported last month.

The bill passed by the House would limit more than ever outdoor advertising near schools, ban remaining sports and entertainment sponsorships, ban deceptive "light" and "mild" descriptions of cigarettes and allow the FDA to limit the amount of key ingredients such as nicotine and limit or reduce other ingredients such as menthol or candy-like flavors.

But in order to reduce political roadblocks that could easily be put up by an industry that has thrown $62 million in campaign cash at congressional and presidential races since 1990, the legislation would grant the tobacco industry nonvoting status on a new tobacco products scientific advisory committee.

Tobacco manufacturers would get two seats and tobacco growers would get a third. Seven of the nine voting members would be scientists, doctors, or otherwise from the healthcare field.

That understandably rankled the most ardent of tobacco control advocates, but it was enough for Philip Morris to break ranks with lesser cigarette makers to support the legislation, and still retain the support of groups like the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. That Philip Morris or someone from the tobacco industry is about to become an official arm of the government is annoying, but it is better than the endless arms race of lawyers, false advertising, and feel-good cigarette sponsorships. The tobacco bill means of course that cigarettes themselves will not be banned. But America has moved one step closer to blunting the influence of Big Tobacco.

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