Experts: FDA tobacco bill long overdue

By KRISTIN BILLERA, UPI Correspondent   |   Feb. 23, 2007 at 8:00 AM

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration may finally exercise control over the tobacco industry if a reintroduced bill passes through Congress, a move experts herald as smart public-health policy.

Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Reps. Henry Waxman D-Calif., and Tom Davis, R-Va., announced Feb. 15 the reintroduction of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. The act passed in the Senate in 2004 but was rejected in the House.

In 2000 the Supreme Court ruled in FDA vs. Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp. that the FDA did not have the authority to regulate the tobacco industry. The passage of this bill would override that precedent.

Health advocates such as Dr. Ron Davis, president-elect of the American Medical Association, support its passage.

"Passage of this legislation will end the cruel irony that cigarettes are the most important preventable cause of death and disease in the United States and one of the least regulated products in our society," Davis said. Smoking causes 400,000 premature deaths each year, and lung cancer is the most fatal form of the disease.

The act would give the FDA authority to control advertising of tobacco products, help current smokers quit, identify and order the reduction of toxic ingredients in tobacco products and smoke, provide stronger warning labels and prevent the tobacco industry from misleading the public.

Wendy Selig, vice president of legislative affairs for the American Cancer Society, believes FDA regulation of tobacco is a crucial step toward getting the tobacco industry under regulation.

"The tobacco industry has fought us at every step of the way," Selig said. "Part of the reason FDA regulation of tobacco is so important is because time and time again, this industry has proven that they can't be trusted."

David Howard, spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the world's second-largest tobacco company, said the passage of this bill could begin a discussion on how to resolve controversies about tobacco companies.

"Our support is behind moving from the politics of accusation, which seems to be the in air these days, to the business of established sound, cooperative, workable, national policies," Howard said.

Spokespeople from Philip Morris USA, a division of Altria Group Inc., the world's leading company for tobacco sales, declined to comment on this issue and how it would affect the tobacco industry.

However, Michael E. Szymanczyk, chairman and chief executive officer of Philip Morris, and Steven Parrish, senior vice president of corporate affairs, both sent letters to the sponsors of the bill expressing their support.

The bill would give the FDA full power to impose restrictions upon tobacco advertising under the First Amendment, especially advertising that targets children. Kennedy called such advertising "the largest disinformation campaign in the history of the corporate world."

Yet Howard insisted the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company's marketing and advertising campaigns are not directed towards children.

"We go to great lengths to ensure that we are operating in a principled manner. Kids should not smoke. Period. We want to communicate -- and do communicate -- with adults who have made the choice to smoke," Howard said.

The proposed restrictions would ban tobacco advertising within 1,000 feet of schools, restrict outdoor advertising and allow only black-and-white text advertising in magazines with high numbers of teenaged readers.

Lawmakers also want to eliminate words in tobacco advertising and labels that could be considered misleading, such as "light," "mild" and "low." In order for tobacco companies to make any health claims about reduced risk of disease or harm about their products, they would first have to present the FDA with scientific evidence to gain approval.

Selig is concerned that women in particular may be "sucked in by a very misleading campaign" for products labeled "light" or "low-tar." Lung-cancer numbers in U.S. women have remained steady, perhaps partially due to women switching from regular cigarettes to ones that are labeled as less harmful -- claims invalidated by the tobacco industry, she said. Most health officials agree that smoking "low-tar" or "low-nicotine" cigarettes are not any less hazardous than regular cigarettes, Davis said: "It's like jumping out of the twenty-second floor of a building instead of the twenty-fourth."

As the first major tobacco legislation in 20 years, this bill has been too long in coming, Davis said.

"It's high time for Congress to take action to curb the use of these products and the activities of the tobacco industry."

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