The United States isn’t going to quit smoking cold turkey. But it is now going to make a credible effort to cut down, in a way that will save lives, save money and hold some real promise for seriously reducing the number of young people who will take up the deadly habit in future years.
The bill signed with great ceremony the other day by President Obama not only does not ban cigarettes or other tobacco products, it specifically tells the Food and Drug Administration that it may not ban them. But it does give the federal agency some valuable tools to reduce the harm nicotine addiction does to individuals and to society.
The new law is, to a large degree, a deal with the devils. It makes no attempt to put Altria, R. J. Reynolds or Lorillard out of business. It even, it has reasonably been argued, cements the tobacco giants’ position against any future upstarts that now will not be able to use aggressive advertising or marketing that targets children to crack the market.
The huge number of Americans who are already addicted to the coffin nails—one Barack Obama marginally among them—is a much more compelling reason than even the campaign contributions of tobacco companies why no reasonable government would seek to ban tobacco.
Nobody needs the failure of another Prohibition. Any such attempt would create a huge black market for nicotine delivery systems that would be both more profitable and more dangerous than anything now residing on the shelves of the ever-fewer supermarkets that still sell the stuff.
But the FDA now can and will ban youth-targeting tricks such as candy-flavored cigarettes and marketing aimed at children. This is crucial, as most people who smoke picked up the habit before they were 18 years old –that is, when they were breaking the law to do so.
The FDA will also be able to determine, and make public, just what is in the weed and the smoke that rises therefrom. It will now be able to detect, publicize and ban the trickery of the tobacco companies that once manipulated the natural make-up of tobacco leaf into ever-more-addictive products.
It will even be able to manipulate the companies into reverse- engineering cigarettes and varieties of chewing tobacco that are less addictive, and thus easier to renounce when one has, say, made a promise to one’s spouse or decided to run for president.
Such products should allow the government to wean itself from the revenue of tobacco taxes—revenue it will be more able to live without when fewer smokers are sucking the life out of Medicare and Medicaid funds.
It will still be a long time before we can look around this country and find no smokers. And the limits the bill puts on tobacco advertising may yet face serious First Amendment challenges.
But the new law is a serious step toward admitting that we have a problem, that many of our friends and neighbors —children among them—are powerless to save themselves and that each small but deliberate step toward the freedom from addiction is well worth the effort.
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