On Thursday, the US Senate voted to approve the FDA regulation of tobacco. Obama is expected to sign this into law within a few days. Basically, this moves the regulation of tobacco out of the political arena (although it will still be taxed) and into the arena of drug and food control.
Many are hailing this as a victory against tobacco, but I am not that sanguine about it. The FDA has a history of dubious dealings with Big Pharma, including fast-tracking applications and paying scant attention to drug reactions. It took years to get Vioxx of the market, despite the obvious heart damage it was causing. The saga of rosiglitazone (Avadia) is still ongoing. It therefore remains to be seen whether moving regulatory responsibility away from the cut and thrust of lobby politics and into the bureaucracy of the FDA will make any difference.
Admittedly, the FDA will be now able to visit manufacturing sites and veto any additives to cigarettes designed to make them more palatable. Unfortunately, the FDA is also restricted from banning tobacco outright or insisting on nicotine-free product. I expect the Tobacco Industry will use the “effectively” ploy if the FDA tries to strong-arm them. As in “not allowing us to do this is effectively banning tobacco” and “a nicotine content that low is effectively zero”. At any rate, I suspect the tobacco manufacturers are not overly worried by this development. All they have to do is ensure that teenagers continue to think smoking is cool and they will always have a ready market and be safe from an outright ban.
Of course, as with all regulation, I expect unintended consequences. The most obvious one being that the FDA will probably merrily restrict the introduction of actually safer products whilst leaving the more dangerous varieties untouched. Further restriction on sales and advertising to youth will also enhance tobacco’s “street cred”, making it more likely that young people will try it.
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