Regulation was overdue for tobacco products

The effort to give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco has been about as difficult as a typical person’s battle to quit smoking.

But it was a major breakthrough when President Barack Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in a recent ceremony. The nation stands a chance now to see the scourge of tobacco curbed in one of the more meaningful ways to date. And it has been a battle that has lasted decades.

No sooner had Obama signed the bill than attention swelled over the fact that the president has acknowledged his own struggle in quitting smoking. The attention to the president’s habits probably has been overplayed. The law is not about Obama’s nicotine addiction. It’s about saving lives, especially through making sure efforts to attract young people to cigarettes are stopped.

But to the extent Obama’s smoking is subject to public speculation, it would be one of his best examples of leadership if one day he could announce his addiction has been licked. He could be a role model on such a personal problem. Millions of Americans can relate to that struggle.

The new law should prove to be a landmark step. Scientists began to recognize tobacco’s dangers in the 1950s. The surgeon general declared tobacco unhealthy in the 1960s. In 1971, the federal government banned tobacco ads from television and radio. The FDA tried on its own to regulate tobacco, but it was stymied by the Supreme Court. The tobacco industry — ever wily — was able to argue successfully that the FDA’s purpose was to oversee products meant to heal people and that tobacco certainly didn’t qualify for regulation on that count. The only avenue was through congressional action, which for decades proved difficult because of the lobbying efforts and the political realities of members from tobacco states. But earlier this month, Congress enacted significant regulation.

Under the new law, the FDA cannot ban tobacco products. Neither can it order nicotine out of those products. But it will do the following:

• Give the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco for the first time with a new office to cover the content, sale and marketing of the products.

• Require bigger warning labels, which will cover 50 percent of the front and back of the packages.

• Ban descriptions such as “light” and “low tar.” Tobacco is a lethal product in any form.

• Ban advertising tobacco within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds.

• Halt tobacco sponsorships of sports and entertainment events.

• Bar flavoring in tobacco products that could appeal to children.

• Require a detailed listing of ingredients in the products, with the FDA authorized to require changes in the products.

The aggregate effect of those steps should help. Currently tobacco use is said to kill roughly 440,000 people each year through cancer, heart disease or other ailments. Since almost 20 percent of Americans are smokers, substantial reductions in smoking could have a significant impact on the nation’s health.

It would be nice to celebrate this breakthrough as the death knell for all the evil deeds of the tobacco companies. The manufacturers have been elusive, deceptive and uncaring about the effects of their products on unsuspecting customers. Sadly, the companies long ago began to see their viability in foreign markets. But at least it can be said that the United States has begun to see enough of this health hazard. Tobacco won’t be eliminated, but it will be heavily regulated. The tougher regulation was a long time coming. It’s a welcome sight.

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