Regulating Tobacco

June 06, 1994

The tobacco companies are trying hard to portray themselves as persecuted by fanatics. In fact they are proving to be their own worst enemies. For all the millions they spend on advertising and high-powered public relations, their claims their product is just a pleasant relaxant, with no known ill effects, is pretty well demolished. The Food and Drug Administration is slowly moving toward regulating nicotine as a drug. It's about time.

Long past time, judging from the records of some tobacco companies. Despite their vigorous efforts to discredit studies that showed cigarette smoking contributed to fatal heart and lung ailments and caused lung cancer, they had evidence of their own it was true. Some of it dates before the first surgeon general's report linking cigarettes and cancer 30 years ago but was suppressed until recently.

Still the tobacco companies' political gyrations continue. If local governments get too tough on smoking in public places or peddling cigarettes where it is easy for minors to buy them illegally, then get the state to pre-empt jurisdiction. Spend millions on lawyers and lobbyists to distract the public from overwhelming evidence their products cause thousands of deaths a year. Deny that nicotine is addictive when their own scientists have produced strong evidence that it is.

The winds of change are inexorably blowing away the smoke screens laid down by the tobacco peddlers. Documents are emerging from their own files, largely at congressional hearings, that give greater force to those who want to impose stricter controls on the sale of cigarettes.

The dispute now hinges on the question of addiction. If the FDA determines that nicotine levels are manipulated in the manufacturing process, the agency can regulate tobacco sales as it does with other drugs. The evidence on manipulation is not yet conclusive, though there is ample evidence in the manufacturers' own records that nicotine can be eliminated entirely. But that wouldn't produce a cigarette many people would want to smoke, so the idea was squelched.

Whether or not the tobacco companies manipulate nicotine levels with malice aforethought, it is clear they have been manipulating the public for decades. Smoking kills people; that's a fact. Anything that harmful needs to be strictly regulated.

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