In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Tobacco Control Act, which gave the Food and Drug Administration authority over tobacco products. It was a signal moment in the fight against smoking. After decades of education campaigns, cessation programs and increasing taxes, the U.S. smoking rate is stuck at about a fifth of the adult population. And after a string of headline-worthy achievements, the FDA’s tobacco program has been a little quiet lately.
So far, the agency has asserted authority over only cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, not products such as cigars, pipe tobacco or e-cigarettes. Until it claims broader jurisdiction, it can’t compel the examination of ingredients and assess their relative lethality, let alone regulate more aggressively.
Flavored cigarettes have been banned, but tobacco companies still flavor cigars to taste like grape or cola, and the vaporous chemical mixture inhaled from e-cigarettes now comes in flavors such as “cherry limeade” and “Atomic Fireball.” Menthol cigarettes, meanwhile, are still on sale.
Lawrence Deyton, the FDA’s chief tobacco regulator, says the agency has been busy enforcing all the rules it enacted in its first years, building a regulatory body from scratch and informing tobacco companies what it will expect of them. In order to take steps such as dialing back the amount of nicotine in tobacco products, the agency must undertake exhaustive scientific research demonstrating that its decisions are not “arbitrary and capricious.”
Meanwhile, the FDA isn’t the only body that needs to act. Congress should raise national tobacco taxes, especially for products that currently enjoy preferential tax treatment relative to cigarettes, such as large cigars and pipe tobacco. States, too, can raise excises and devote more of the money to anti-tobacco programs. These sorts of policies have saved many lives over decades of effort, and there’s reason to think that old tools can still help.
The Washington Post (Feb. 5)