It's not often you hear of a tobacco company begging for government regulation--especially one that has screamed "too much government regulation" at virtually every tobacco-related public health law proposed in the past. But that's exactly what tobacco company lobbyists are doing. Lobbyists for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris (PM), have reportedly been distributing to Congress members summaries of two legislative bills that both propose the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate cigarettes. A colleague of mine managed to obtain a copy of the summaries. It has Altria's logo on it.
Recent studies showing tobacco companies have been ramping up the amount of nicotine in cigarettes have renewed the clamor for FDA regulation of cigarettes. The fact that PM is distributing summaries of two soon-to-be-proposed bills that would do just that shows PM has intimate knowledge of both bills well in advance of public notification. Seems appropriate, since PM probably had a significant part in drafting the bills. A Tobacco-On Trial blog entry from January 26, 2005 (the blog that covered the U.S. Department of Justice's racketeering lawsuit against the tobacco industry) describes PM attorney Dan Webb's cross-examination of Altria Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Steven C. Parrish. In his testimony, Parrish emphasized the company had been working with Representative Henry Waxman, and Senator Ted Kennedy in advocating FDA regulation. It is no coincidence that Kennedy and Waxman are both sponsors of the two soon-to-be proposed bills. Could these two staunchly anti-tobacco legislators have been taken in by Altria's sweet promises of corporate responsibility?
Frankly, it's hard to picture anyone besides an industry lobbyist drafting this legislation. The proposed language seems more concerned with limiting the powers of the FDA than with addressing public health concerns.
Just take a look at a few of the provisions: Both bills explicitly provide that FDA will not be allowed to prohibit the sale of any tobacco product to adults age 18 and over. This reinforces the "kids don't smoke" focus that has worked so well for PM in the past, framing tobacco use as a youth problem instead of a societal one. It also allows PM, with its bogus "Youth Smoking Prevention" campaigns, to paint itself as part of the solution. It also keeps people from seeing that the company's products and corporate behavior are societal problems, and keeps the focus off the fact that tobacco kills over 400,000 adults (not children) every year.
The bills also prevent FDA from mandating removal of nicotine from cigarettes altogether, reserving that right solely to Congress. This provision effectively hobbles FDA from the beginning, preventing it from responding to advances in science or policy.
Both bills also direct FDA to consider whether a new standard pertaining to tobacco would create new demand for contraband products. This is a huge loophole. Lots of proof exists demonstrating that tobacco companies purposely stimulate contraband commerce as a way to force policy changes on governments and get around regulations restricting new products. All a tobacco company would have to do to fight any FDA rule it doesn't like would be to ratchet up its contraband machine, and voila! New FDA rule goes away.
The bills also require that FDA product standards apply nationwide. This prevents states from imposing stricter standards than federal regulations. Another word for this is "preemption," a legislative strategy PM developed and implemented nationally in the 1990s to slow the landslide of laws cities and towns across the U.S. were passing to end smoking in public places. Preemption, as originally developed by PM, removed the rights of cities and towns to enact smoking laws stricter than state laws. Preemptive laws stop people from acting on new information, or taking quick steps to protect people more strongly than federal laws allow. In recent years, as federal governments have failed to take action to address tobacco's toll of death and disease, state and Canadian provincial laws have been enacted that require disclosure of cigarette additives and the chemical contents of smoke, and have mandated fire-safe cigarettes, for example--all things that benefit people but that tobacco companies disdain.
The bills assure that tobacco companies will stay in business and make profits well into the future. The bills fail to address the underlying problem: that tobacco companies are bound by law to return profits for shareholders, and, like machines, operate for profit and to the detriment of public health. We need no more proof of the benefit of these bills to tobacco companies than the fact that Altria is stumping so hard for them. If Altria thought the bills would put a dent in the cigarette business, they'd be fighting them, not carrying on an internal corporate program to enact them. A good FDA bill is one tobacco companies don't welcome with open arms.