Gooze Views

Peter Galuszka


The Netherworld of FDA Regulation


Getting the agency to oversee tobacco is creating strange bedfellows and will end up keeping the status quo – letting thousands more die.


A bid on 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.


From my perspective here in the long-time tobacco capital of Richmond, it looks like a lot of strange people are hopping into bed together.


Hometown 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 editorial pages.


Are you having trouble figuring this all out? I am.


From 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.


The 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.


The 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 pocket.


Altria and Philip Morris USA moved their headquarters to Richmond 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 downtown Richmond.


So, 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.


What’s 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.


To 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 Sweden . 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.


Part 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.


But 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.


No big surprise there. Philip Morris International saw its sales jump 18.5 per cent this year in Eastern Europe, the Middle East 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 believes.


One wonders if smug and secure politicians like Richmond’s own Eric Cantor bother to even think about that.


-- August 4, 2008


















Peter Galuszka is a veteran journalist living in Chesterfield County. View his profile here.


(Photo credit: Maria Galuszka.)