It's a tribute to the political clout of the tobacco industry that its products, which increase the chances of early death when used as directed, have managed to avoid regulation for so long. The government has had more to say about the content of a can of dog food than about the content of a pack of cigarettes. Until now.
Tireless efforts by a relatively small but dedicated group of tobacco-fighters finally paid off last week when both houses of Congress passed a bill that puts the tobacco industry under supervision of the Food and Drug Administration. This won't help the millions of addicted smokers whose habit destroyed their health, but it's not too late for current users and new generations of potential smokers.
Estimates are that one in five Americans still smokes, and 400,000 die each year of smoking-related disease. These are terrible numbers. But in spite of that and the undeniable link between tobacco use and the incidence of various types of cancers and other diseases, Congress stopped short of letting the FDA outlaw tobacco products, ban nicotine or increase the minimum age for smoking.
Still, Congress put an impressive array of powers at the disposal of the FDA to enable it to reduce smoking. Strict enforcement could cut adult smoking by 2 percent over the next decade and 11 percent for young people, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Risk could be reduced by lowering cancer-causing agents and toxins, including nicotine, in cigarette smoke.
The effort to regulate tobacco has been a long time coming -- hearings have been taking place in Congress for decades. At one such hearing in 1994, a group of industry leaders claimed that their products weren't harmful and nicotine was not addictive, fabrications that were subsequently exposed as the exact opposite of the truth.
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