Cigarette Regulation Moves Forward With Troubling Compromise
> 5/14/2008 1:55:13 PM

After receiving the recommendation of the House Energy and Commerce committee, a bill that would grant the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco is coalescing with the general approval of the full body of representatives. The basic idea of placing tobacco under FDA control has enough support to ensure that it is likely to pass into law. But, as is often the case in politics, there is a lot of wheeling and dealing happening around the details.

The dealing is especially delicate for this bill because, while there is a general consensus among citizens and their representatives that tobacco is a deadly product in need of regulation, tobacco companies are still quite powerful and capable of wielding potent economic and political influence. Likewise, politicians are always hesitant in passing legislation that unnecessarily limits consumer choices. Bill supporters thus made the proverbial deal with the devil by winning tobacco giant Philip Morris to their side. Philip Morris is not as worried about pending regulation as other tobacco companies because the tobacco giant has the resources to leap over regulatory obstacles that could well bankrupt smaller rivals.

While Philip Morris is willing to help shepherd the bill into law, it is asking a favor in return. The compromise it requests would exempt menthol cigarettes, one of Philip Morris' most profitable offerings, from the list of products that can be banned by the FDA. It seems that we prematurely celebrated back in April when the bill had all flavor-banning provisions intact.

Flavors are troubling because they target specific demographics, give the illusion of greater safety, and have been suspected of adding additional health risks. Flavors such as cherry and grape appeal to young smokers, and it is fortunate that this version of the bill will still allow the FDA the power to ban these sugar-coated lures. However, methanol largely targets another group, black Americans, a group where three-fourths of smokers use menthol as opposed to one-fourth of white smokers. Menthol has long been considered a scourge of the black community and many health professionals consider it a major factor behind high cancer rates. The scientific community has not yet found conclusive evidence that menthol poses an additional carcinogenic risk through chemical interactions, but further research may very well uncover such evidence. We do know from a 2006 study by Dr. Mark Pletcher that menthol smokers are 30% less likely to quite than the average smoker.

The FDA, for all its flaws, has been able to protect the public from many dangers, and it will have a better chance of restraining the staggering health costs of tobacco with less bureacracy in handling nicotine. Still, if the bill is passed with a loophole for methanol, it will be a serious injustice committed in the name of rushing through a compromise for the greater good. All the menthol in Newports won't get rid of the bad taste left in our mouths.

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