Netherworld of FDA Regulation
the agency to oversee tobacco is creating strange
bedfellows and will end up keeping the status quo
– letting thousands more die.
Capitol Hill to have the Food and Drug
Administration finally regulate tobacco after
years of legislative frustration made a
significant advance last week. The U.S. House of
Representatives approved the measure by a vote of
326 to 102.
my perspective here in the
long-time tobacco capital of Richmond, it looks like a lot of strange people are
hopping into bed together.
firms Philip Morris USA and parent Altria favor
FDA oversight while tobacco competitors Lorillard
and R.J. Reynolds do not. Ultraconservative
Congressman Eric Cantor, a big-time magnet for
tobacco campaign funding, favors FDA regulation
while even more conservative Congressman Randy
Forbes does not. Stacking weird upon weird, both The
New York Times and the retrograde Richmond
Times-Dispatch favor FDA regulation on their
you having trouble figuring this all out? I am.
what I can make of this, the bill would not allow
the FDA to ban tobacco products but would have
authority over the manufacturing, marketing and
sale of them. If the FDA gets the power, it could,
for instance, regulate how much nicotine
cigarettes have, demand stronger health warning
labels and ban such oddities as candy-flavored
cigarettes. Menthol cigarettes would still be OK
so Lorillard, seller of No. 2 brand Newport, would be safe. But that’s way off the point.
point as far as I can tell is that Big Tobacco is
once again dodging the Big Issue. Deadly,
cancer-causing cigarettes, which killed something
like 100 million people in the 20th Century
according to The Washington Post, will
emerge largely unscathed.
Establishment will not change course on tobacco
because there’s so much money involved. Take
Eric Cantor, the nice-boy politician with the
comfortable West End
and private Collegiate School
background. Newspapers say he gets more tobacco
money than any other congressman. I did some math
on the Center for Responsive Politics Website and
counted up $147,000 from Altria, plus several
thousand dollars from Universal Corp., another
Richmond tobacco firm. To be fair, the Republican
Congressman, who has strong ties to former Gov.
Jim Gilmore, got a lot more money from real estate
and financial lobbies. But $147,000 since he went
to Congress in 2001 puts a fair jingle in his
and Philip Morris USA moved their headquarters to
a few years ago essentially to dodge lawsuits and
get the hell out of unfriendly New York City. Their cigarette plant just off I-95 south of
town employs about 5,000. They just built a shiny
new research facility costing $350 million in
it’s no big surprise that when Philip Morris
calls, Cantor picks up the phone. His influence
extends to the newsroom and editorial offices of
the Richmond Times-Dispatch where
Cantor’s wife is a director of the parent firm.
Whenever the T-D runs
another glowing story about the brilliant Cantor,
or pushes him again as John McCain’s running mate,
the newspaper runs a strange disclaimer
that the wife is a company director. You wonder
anyone bothers, as it doesn’t change the T-D’s
lapdog coverage one bit.
in it for Philip Morris with the FDA? For years,
PM linked arms with its sister tobacco firms to
fight off regulation. But the company got religion
in the 1990s after it, like other firms, got
clobbered with a huge lawsuit judgment. According
to info on the Web, a PM lawyer named Mark Berlind
wrote a key memo back in 1998 urging PM to about
face on the FDA. He argued that if people know the
risks of smoking and light up anyway, that
absolves the company. Additionally, FDA oversight
will help maintain PM's market share with, of
course, its very own Marlboro being the No. 1
brand. This all assumes that the FDA won’t ban
tobacco altogether, which this bill won’t do.
listen to the PM spin, the company’s motive is
benign. With cigarette sales slumping in this
country, the company wants to move more
aggressively into smokeless tobacco product, such
as the spit-free tobacco pouches called “snus,”
which originated in
. Now wait a minute. As far as I can tell, the
only Americans who use smokeless tobacco are
cowboys and the country folk from the
Eastern North Carolina
tobacco belt where I cut my journalistic teeth in
the early 1970s. Country folk referred to it as
“dipping snuff,” as in “Porgy and Bess. It
is hard for me to understand how snuff or an
obscure product like Swedish “snus” could ever
grow to have the same market appeal as Marlboros.
of the problem for PM, in fact, is that cigarettes
do have less appeal, at least in the U.S.
Altria’s second quarter net income fell 58
percent, but that was largely because of the costs
of spinning off Philip Morris International to its
new European headquarters as a dodge from U.S.
lawsuits. In the U.S., industry volume should fall 3.5 percent this
year. Indeed, since the clear link between
nicotine and deadly disease was made 50 years ago,
the number of U.S. smokers has dropped in half.
is that enough? Why not do away with cigarettes
entirely? To read Philip Morris USA’s Web page,
that seems to be what they are trying to tell you.
They have image and content galore urging you NOT
to use their products. Yet if you switch to Philip
Morris International’s Web page, the push is
entirely different. It shows a majestic corporate
coat of arms. If you click far enough, you can
read health warnings in various languages. I can
read Russian so I read the Russian page was
surprised about how brief and non-descriptive it
was compared to the PM USA approach.
big surprise there. Philip Morris International
saw its sales jump 18.5 per cent this year in Eastern Europe, the
and Africa. PMI markets in some poor countries that are
ill-equipped to handle the health impacts of their
products. While tobacco killed 100 million in the
1900s, it is expected to kill 1 billion in the
21st Century worldwide if things go as usual, the Post
wonders if smug and secure politicians like Richmond’s own Eric Cantor bother to even think about
August 4, 2008