It has been 45 years since the U.S. surgeon general warned that smoking tobacco causes lung cancer, yet cigarettes today remain the single-largest cause of preventable death in the nation.
Last week, Congress finally did something big about it by passing the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which gives the government unprecedented authority over the production and marketing of tobacco products.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has the slogan "Protecting and promoting your health," for the first time will be able to regulate what goes into tobacco products, demand elimination of toxic substances and block the introduction of new products. Until now, it has lacked jurisdiction over tobacco products even though they’re so dangerous that Congress labeled their use by children as "a pediatric disease."
The law puts an emphasis on preventing young people from taking up the habit, something that is important because virtually all new users start before the legal minimum age of 18. Cigarette manufacturers have a long and shameful history of aiming their ads at young people even though sales to minors are forbidden in all 50 states. The new law will require direct, face-to-face sales and restrict vending machine dispensation and point-of-sale advertising to locations that already are restricted to adults only.
Tobacco-related sponsorship of sports and entertainment events will be banned, as will candy, fruit and other flavors intended to entice new smokers to give cigarettes a try. Likewise barred is the labeling of some brands as "light," "mild" or "low," which has given the false impression that their health risks are diminished.
The tiny lettering that warns of the dangers of smoking on every pack will be replaced by impossible-to-miss labels that cover 50 percent of both the front and back of each pack and include the word "warning" in all capital letters.
Getting to this point has been a very long haul. The FDA tried to exert authority over tobacco products in the 1990s, but the Supreme Court agreed with the industry and ruled that it lacked regulatory power over tobacco under then-existing law. Lobbying and pressure from the Bush White House blocked legislative efforts until now.
Armed with its new power, the FDA eventually could order the reduction or elimination of habit-forming nicotine from cigarettes, a change that would contribute to saving millions of lives and billions of dollars.
Although smokers may be the only people paying the per-pack price for cigarettes, everyone shares the higher medical costs attributable to smoking, and nonsmokers also share the health risks — 30 percent of employees are not covered by laws that require smoke-free workplaces and 22 million children aged 3 through 11 are exposed regularly to second-hand smoke.
Thanks to Congress and President Barack Obama, who struggles as a former smoker, public health has finally won its long fight against Big Tobacco.