Cigarettes as Drugs

Posted June 10, 2009, at 4:52 p.m.

One of the most addictive substances sold over the counter in stores across the nation may finally be treated like the health threat it is. A bill that would further restrict the marketing of tobacco products is working its way through Congress to a likely approval.

The Senate bill requires larger health warning on cigarette packages and would ban the use of terms like “light,” “mild” and “low tar” and end the use of candy flavorings. It also would restrict where and how tobacco products could be advertised. The House of Representatives approved a similar version of the bill in April that would give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products. That would give the federal agency access to the ingredients in cigarettes and allow it to require changes in production to protect public health, a substantial step forward in clamping down on this deadly product.

If the Family Smoking and Tobacco Control Act passes Congress, President Obama — a struggling ex-smoker — has pledged to sign it.

The effort to treat tobacco like a drug dates back decades. Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California who co-sponsored the current bill, first worked for such restrictions in the 1980s. At a hearing before the Energy and Commerce Committee in 1994, tobacco executives said nicotine was not addictive. Since then, Rep. Waxman has said, public attitudes have changed; although even in 1994, the denials were received with disdain by most Americans.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, co-authored the 1990 bill to ban smoking on airplanes. “It’s historic that we’re finally saying tobacco needs to be regulated,” he told USA Today, and added that the current bill will save millions of lives.

And it’s not just Democrats who have been willing to take on the powerful tobacco lobby. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, worked to pass a similar bill to have the FDA regulate tobacco in 1998.

Two of the big three tobacco companies are predicting economic pain for farmers and others in the business. That may not be hyperbole. But tobacco companies and those whose businesses rely on the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products did not need a crystal ball to see the diminished place the substance would have in the future. Those with vision should have begun diversifying and moving away from reliance on tobacco, lucrative though it has been.

There have been many red-letter days in the fight against tobacco. The biggest may have come in 1965, when the surgeon general endorsed a report linking smoking to lung cancer. Yet the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reports that tobacco use is still the country’s top cause of preventable death, responsible for killing more than 400,000 Americans each year. A much smaller percentage of Americans smoke now than in 1965, but the number dying from tobacco use has not changed.

This law will not be the final nail in tobacco’s coffin, but it is an important one.

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