Opinion

Regulating cigarettes

Giving the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco won't result in safe cigarettes. Nonetheless, it is likely to be a useful step toward setting national standards for what goes into cigarettes and letting consumers know just what compounds and additives they are taking into their lungs.

It is ironic that the FDA might be asked to regulate what amounts to an addictive poison, a product that includes more than 40 known carcinogens and kills more than 400,000 people a year. Yet Congress is poised to do just that, with both houses preparing to introduce bills that would put tobacco under FDA regulation.

FDA officials reportedly are reluctant to take over this duty. Some wonder just what it might entail, and foresee ongoing battles with the tobacco industry over how far regulations can go.

Advocates, however, argue that the bill would give the FDA the authority to go where the scientific evidence takes it and make decisions based on that science. At the least, the agency should be able to regulate the materials producers add to cigarettes to improve taste or -- as past investigations have verified -- to make them more addictive.

If cigarettes were merely a natural tobacco product, the FDA might have less justification for stepping in to regulate their contents. But most cigarettes consist of a complex recipe of flavoring agents, chemicals to enhance burning, compounds known only to tobacco companies and blends of tobacco bred not only for taste but also for nicotine content.

It is absurd that producers should be allowed to continue to sell their products to consumers with no oversight regarding contents. The FDA might never be able to demand that tobacco companies produce a safe cigarette, but regulation might result in a safer cigarette, and one that is less addictive.

The congressional legislation would put the burden of proof on producers to disclose what they put into their cigarettes and demonstrate to the FDA that they are not making cigarettes more harmful. Then, informed consumers at least would have a choice as to which brands offer cigarettes with fewer additives.

The obvious risk is that some consumers will view FDA oversight as a stamp of approval for cigarettes. By now, however, everyone should realize that smoking is harmful and that there is no such thing as a safe cigarette.

It seems inevitable that some day -- perhaps not soon, but some day -- the FDA will be empowered to regulate cigarettes as a drug delivery system, which essentially is what they are. They will be treated as a controlled substance, like morphine or other opiates.

Meanwhile, however, allowing the FDA to oversee what goes into those cancer sticks is a sensible move.

IN SUMMARY

Give FDA the authority to oversee the compounds and additives producers put in cigarettes.

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