President Obama has signed into law a bill that should have been enacted years ago, giving the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products, the most lethal of all consumer products.
It has been a long and arduous path with many political obstacles. Passage of the legislation is much more than a political victory for those who have long championed this cause. It is a life-saving act for millions of children who will be spared a lifetime of addiction and premature death.
The overwhelming need for regulation could no longer be ignored. Used as intended by the companies that manufacture and market them, cigarettes will kill one out of every three smokers. Yet, decade after decade, the federal agency most responsible for protecting public health has been powerless to deal with the enormous risks of tobacco use. Public health experts overwhelmingly believe that FDA regulation is the most important action Congress could take to protect people from this deadly addiction.
Smoking is the number one preventable cause of death in America. Nationally, cigarettes kill well over 400,000 people each year — more lives than are lost from automobile accidents, alcohol abuse, illegal drugs, AIDS, murder, and suicide combined. If smoking were allowed to continue at its current rate, more than six million of today’s children would ultimately die from tobacco-induced disease.
The American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the American Medical Association, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and 86 other national public health organizations spoke with one voice on this issue. They all supported this legislation because they know it will give FDA the power it needs to reduce youth smoking and help addicted smokers quit.
While the federal government stayed on the sidelines, the tobacco industry misled consumers, made false health claims, concealed the lethal contents of their products, made cigarettes even more addictive, and worst of all, deliberately addicted generations of children. The alternative to FDA regulation is more of the same. Allowing this abusive conduct by the tobacco industry to go unchecked would be terribly wrong.
Under the new law, FDA will for the first time have the power and resources it needs to take on this challenge. The cost will be funded entirely by a new user fee paid by tobacco companies in proportion to their market share. Not a single dollar will be diverted from FDA’s existing responsibilities.
FDA’s new authority will not make the tragic toll of tobacco use disappear overnight. More than 40 million people are hooked on this highly addictive product and many of them have been unable to quit despite repeated attempts. What FDA can do is play a major role in breaking the gruesome cycle that seduces millions of teenagers into a lifetime of addiction and premature death.
It can reduce youth smoking by preventing tobacco advertising that targets children.
It can help prevent the sale of tobacco products to minors.
It can stop the tobacco industry from continuing to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking.
It can help smokers overcome their addiction.
It can require manufacturers to make tobacco products less toxic and less addictive for those who continue to use them.
It can prohibit unsubstantiated health claims about supposedly “reduced risk” products, and encourage the development of genuinely less harmful alternative products.
Millions of Americans will lead longer, healthier lives — all because Congress finally summoned the will to say “no” to Big Tobacco.
Edward M. Kennedy is the senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts.
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