FDA Tobacco Regulation
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By Alanna Kennedy

Smoke Signals

A new law gives the FDA clout to regulate tobacco

By Alanna Kennedy


Over the summer, President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. The new law gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to regulate tobacco products. It is the most significant piece of federal legislation to take aim at tobacco since smoking was banned on some airplane flights in 1988.

“This is a landmark piece of public health legislation,” says Gregg Haifley, the associate director of federal government relations for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. “The tobacco business has been producing, manipulating and marketing deadly products. Those practices will now be scrutinized by the FDA.”

Under the new law, the FDA will have the authority to regulate nicotine levels in cigarettes and can require changes to tobacco products’ ingredients. The FDA will also be able to restrict tobacco marketing in publications and other places where children can see it. In convenience stores and magazines that have a high youth readership, tobacco ads will be limited to black-and-white text. “Advertisements that make smoking seem cool and sexy will be gone,” says Danny McGoldrick, the vice president for research at the nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Under the new law, tobacco companies will also be prevented from promoting their brand names on nontobacco products, such as T-shirts and lighters. And tobacco companies will no longer be allowed to use the terms “light” or “low tar,” which Haifley calls “misleading.”

Yet some tobacco-control advocates say the new law does not go far enough and will not reduce smoking. “The FDA does not have the power to remove nicotine from cigarettes,” says Michael Siegel, a professor in the department of community health services at Boston University. And while the FDA can require lower nicotine levels in cigarettes, he suggests that such efforts might do more harm than good. “Smokers are addicted,” he says. “If there is less nicotine in the cigarette, they’ll smoke more—and more deeply—to maintain the same nicotine levels.”

Siegel also doubts the law will lead to reduced rates of youth smoking. “There’s no provision for education, no anti-smoking programs or advertising program to discourage youth smoking,” he says. The bill does ban youth-friendly flavored cigarettes, but he notes that menthol cigarettes are exempt from the ban. “Kids aren’t out there smoking cherry cigarettes, they’re smoking menthol,” says Siegel. “Menthol is the No. 1 brand of African-American youth, and it’s the only flavored cigarette being smoked by millions of people throughout the country.”

Haifley points out that menthol cigarettes aren’t permanently exempt from the ban and says the FDA will conduct a study over the next year to consider whether companies can continue to sell them. Meanwhile, on the question of nicotine levels in tobacco products, McGoldrick says it’s not yet clear what steps the FDA will take regarding those levels.

Siegel is concerned, nonetheless, that the new FDA oversight may give some consumers the false impression that cigarettes aren’t as dangerous as they were prior to regulation. “I don’t think anyone will think cigarettes are good for them,” he says, “but I think people will assume if the FDA is setting a standard, cigarettes will be safer.”

Despite such concerns from critics, McGoldrick says he believes the new law will help curb smoking rates, although much more remains to be done in the fight against tobacco. “We need to fund tobacco prevention and cessation programs,” he says. “We’re falling woefully short on this measure. We need to renew our will to fund tobacco prevention.”