Commentary

Put Out This Tobacco Bill

According to anti-smoking groups, the current Congressional attempt to give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco is the most important piece of legislation since the surgeon general spoke out on the dangers of smoking 40 years ago. Surprisingly, it is not just the foes of Big Tobacco that support the proposed law, which was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday.

Philip Morris, the world’s largest tobacco company, is also firmly behind the bill. In fact, it played a pivotal role in writing the legislation, working with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. What these strange bedfellows came up with is bad for competition in the tobacco industry and bad for public health.

One problem is that under the proposed law, the F.D.A. would regulate any new “reduced-risk” tobacco products. And in so doing, the agency would be responsible for setting standards to determine which tobacco products pose a reduced health hazard. Since the F.D.A. has neither the resources nor the expertise to do this job itself, it most likely would need to turn to the industry for help.

Philip Morris, which is miles ahead of its competitors in developing the next generation of tobacco products, would be only too happy to assist. In effect, it would be Philip Morris’s standards and products that would define the F.D.A.’s definition of reduced-risk cigarettes.

This would give the company an unassailable competitive advantage. Unable to match Philip Morris’s technical prowess, its competitors would be reduced to licensing its technology and producing pale imitations.

Moreover, by setting regulatory standards for reduced-risk cigarettes, the F.D.A. would send a message to both smokers and nonsmokers that smoking is really not very risky. However, it will take several decades before anyone is able to do the epidemiological studies that could demonstrate whether this is true. In effect, this bill tosses aside decades of work by the public health community to convince people either to stop smoking or not to start in the first place.

By assigning the F.D.A. responsibility for all tobacco products, the new law would also relieve the industry of any liability for tobacco safety — and pass it along to the government.

Few lawmakers seem to understand either the bill’s origins or ramifications. But the Senate should send it back to the committee and start from scratch. Come up with a law that would give the F.D.A. authority to regulate tobacco, but do so in a way that would truly protect public health.

Patrick Basham, the director of the Democracy Institute, is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.