Last week’s overwhelming passage of a bill empowering the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products is a big deal and, frankly, long overdue. It’s not only going to result in fewer Americans starting to smoke, but fewer health problems for those who won’t or can’t quit.
The bill, which President Obama has endorsed, will discourage smoking in many ways. For one, it will require larger and more graphic warning labels on cigarette packs. For another, it will further restrict advertising and promotion of tobacco products: Colorful ads and store displays will be replaced by black-and-white-only text, and use of terms like “light” and “low-tar” will be forbidden.
It will also prohibit the use of flavorings like clove, which youthful smokers are attracted to. Unfortunately, though, it won’t ban menthol, which is popular among African Americans, until there is further study.
The bill will also allow the FDA to make cigarettes less harmful by regulating the amount of nicotine and other hazardous chemicals they contain. This is significant because cigarette makers have been known to boost the level of these chemicals in their products to make them more addictive.
While more Americans quit smoking every year, an estimated one-fifth of the population still smokes, and more than 400,000 die from lung cancer, emphysema and other smoking-related illnesses annually. This is not only tragic, it’s enormously expensive: roughly $100 billion a year in health care costs and an equivalent amount in lost productivity.
State governments have been quietly raising cigarette taxes over the years to discourage smoking; it’s time the federal government did more to help with this battle too.