Nearly 3,500 young people will pick up their first cigarette today and smoke it. Just short of a third of them will develop a filthy lifetime habit likely to shorten their lives, condemning some of them to join the 400,000 annual smoking fatalities.
There is good reason today to hope that both those numbers soon will decline. Historic legislation it took Congress at least two decades to approve is designed to reduce tobacco use and protect especially the youths of this land, but adults as well, from being lured into thinking it’s cool to light up and deceived into believing that smoking is safe.
For 20 years the powerful tobacco lobby prevented the adoption of the kind of common sense measures found in the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama — who admittedly continues to battle the nicotine addiction he developed as a teenager.
The difference this year? The country’s largest tobacco company, Philip Morris USA, after years of opposition, switched to support tough but fair regulation. The company’s competitors object that the new regulations will protect its share of the market. Be that as it may, Philip Morris’ support was vital in this health care reform.
Do not for a minute be fooled by what the opposition is saying about the Food and Drug Administration regulating what goes into tobacco. Despite alarmist claims that the FDA will ban tobacco use the law specifically prohibits that from happening. Despite misleading claims that the FDA will ban nicotine it is forbidden by law from doing that. And it can’t ban other tobacco products, either, including cigarettes, smokeless tobacco or cigars although premarket-market approval will be required. Many health organizations argue the FDA regulations should include all three.
What the FDA can do is bar cigarettes from being flavored like candy to mask the taste until young people are hooked. It can, and will, require larger, more effective warning labels. And it can ban the use of deceptive false claims that so-called “light,” “mild” or “low tar” brand cigarettes are less risky to their health.
Not long ago the tobacco company executives blatantly lied under oath to Congress that they did not add nicotine to tobacco products. The new law will require the companies to provide the FDA detailed lists of what they put into tobacco products. The FDA can require the reduction or elimination of harmful ingredients.
Where the regulations might be most vulnerable to legal challenge, they ban outdoor advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, limit cigarette ads to black-and-white text, confine vending machines to adult-only establishments and halt remaining sponsorships of sports and entertainment events. These steps could be challenged on First Amendment free-speech grounds.
However, the government clearly has the responsibility to protect public health, including the outlawing of false messages that deceive the under aged and adults to risk their lives while running up more than $100 billion annually in health care costs.
It took way too long for Congress to stand up and be counted on this public health issue — 45 years since the U.S. surgeon general in 1964 first warned about the link between smoking and cancer. But let’s be thankful that it’s been done, and hold the FDA accountable for achieving all its new enforcement responsibilities.
And who is going to pay for this? The FDA will collect fees from tobacco producers which, of course, undoubtedly will be passed on to smokers — yet another deterrent to smoking.
The next goal for anti-smoking health organizations? Bans on smoking in public places in every state.
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