What Does FDA Regulation of Tobacco Really Mean?


any years ago –38 to be precise — I was sweating in the Turkish bath of an Eastern North Carolina tobacco field working on a story about seasonal labor hired to prime and sucker the plant. It was just before dawn and a reddish tinge glowing over the country mist. Young teenagers were getting out of a ramshackle school bus to get to work on the bright green plants.

I was a college kid working a summer on my hometown local daily. At the time, tobacco had a deep and lasting impact on states that grew it, including Virginia and of course, North Carolina

where bright leaf ruled in the east.
So, it comes as a bit of a stunner and time trip to realize that the $89 billion U.S. tobacco industry may well be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. It always seemed odd that it wasn’t. Nicotine is as much a drug as aspirin or morphine. Tobacco is a plant like peanuts, corn, soybeans or wheat. But the powerful tobacco industry managed to fight off decades of threats of regulation to avoid any interference by the feds that could question tar, nicotine or any of the other thousands of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in every satisfying drag of a cigarette.
Yet as overwhelming as the Senate vote was last week for FDA oversight, exactly what it means isn’t quite clear. Expected are strict new rule son cigarette advertising, a ban on candy or fruit-flavored smokes and possibly big limits on “snus” or smokeless tobacco products that tobacco companies such as Richmond’s Philip Morris USA have invested heavily in.
Oddly, the FDA ruling has split the usually unified tobacco industry in two. Philip Morris has backed FDA regulation for years. Reynolds American and Lorillard Tobacco have continued to fight it tooth and nail. Opponents claim that Philip Morris wants the bill because it understands that strict regulation of tobacco is inevitable and backing FDA oversight could lock PM in its leading market positions with such popular smokes as Marlboro.
I listened carefully on NPR when I was driving the other day when I heard PM spokesman Bill Phelps explain that his firm knows its products are harmful and is trying to deal with it. It’s the same argument PM has been issuing since the Master Settlement Agreement in 1998. It’s also a bit disingenuous because its recently split off sister company, Philip Morris International, is aggressively targeting international markets with higher tar and nicotine products. The World Health Organization predicts that one billion people will die of smoking related illness globally during this century.
According to The Washington Post today, the old Eastern N.C. tobacco belt where I cut my teeth as a cub newspaper reporter is in turmoil over the FDA oversight possibility. Farmers are quoted saying that the FDA is overworked and incompetent. It can’t handle emergencies and they do have a point. They badly fell down on the job in this year’s tainted food scandal at Lynchburg-based Peanut Corporation of America that ended up with a number of deaths and many illnesses.
In as much as we don’t know what FDA regulation of tobacco will mean — it won’t come close to banning the product — it does show how much times have changed in the Tobacco Belt. As the Post points out, North Carolina industries have moved away from tobacco to computers, software, banking and pharmaceuticals.
That’s a little less true in Richmond where PM has a huge presence. If the FDA all but puts smokeless tobacco out of business, one wonders what will happen to PM’s $350 million research lab at the Virginia Biotech Park in downtown Richmond. It is the cornerstone of the park that struggled for years and now seems to be taking off.
But the trend is clear. The question now is how much things will really change.
Peter Galuszka

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9 responses to “What Does FDA Regulation of Tobacco Really Mean?”

  1. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    What are the dynamics of the 'protest' by some that marijuana should be controled by FDA if tobbaco is?


  2. Groveton Avatar

    I am surprised that the tobacco companies are still in business. I am back in Brazil right now and the smoking is pretty minimal. That was certainly not the case when I was working down here in the early 1990s. Smoking is banned in our Tokyo office although you can almost hear Brownsville Station once the official office administrators leave at night. You can't smoke in bars in New York or Chicago or even Ireland.

    Who is doing all this smoking?

    The Thais? The Mexicans? Maybe. I am sure there are plenty of places where people still smoke – but those places are fewer and further between.

    Why doesn't PM just shut down their US operations and make the butts overseas? What's the attraction of Richmond or North Carolina? Are these places really so perfectly suited to the growth of tobacco that nowhere else will do?

    Why does the FDA have it in for smokeless tobacco? I used to chew Red Man when I was mowing the lawn or fishing. Is that really worse than lighting up?

    As for EMR's question – about time! You'll never convince me that marijuana is worse for society than whiskey (meaning, of course, that my readings on the matter draw me to that conclusion). Does the FDA manage whiskey or is that ATF? Is whiskey worse for people than Red Man?

    Where does this all end? Isn't butter kind of dangerous as well?

    Just to be sure, I checked on Red Man chewing tobacco. It's still in business – although owned by a Swedish company now.


  3. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    China, INdia, INdonesia, Russia and other eastern European countries have huge numbes of smokers and potential smokers.

    EMR: Didn't Thomas Jefferson smoke pot?

  4. Larry G Avatar

    entering from stage left – the proverbial two birds with one stone act:

    " California state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) has announced the introduction of legislation to tax and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcoholic beverages. The bill, the first of its kind ever introduced in California, would create a regulatory structure similar to that used for beer, wine, and liquor, permitting taxed sales to adults while barring sales to or possession by those under 21.

    Estimates based on federal government statistics have shown marijuana to be California’s top cash crop, valued at approximately $14 billion in 2006 — nearly twice the combined value of the state’s number two and three crops, vegetables ($5.7 billion) and grapes ($2.6 billion) — in spite of massive “eradication” efforts that wipe out an average of nearly 36,000 cultivation sites per year without making a dent in this underground industry."


  5. Seriously folks, they don't call it weed for nothing – Anybody that smokes pot would simply grow their own if it were legalized, so passing all of these schemes to tax the stuff is pointless.

    Besides, the "system" makes more money off of the stuff by keeping it illegal then it ever would if it were legalized.

    By the "system" I am referring to our legal-industrial complex, law enforcement-industrial complex, and judicial-industrial complex.

  6. Groveton Avatar


    I know there are a lot of smokers in the world – especially the developing world. But why does PM have to operate in the US? Why fund controversial research in Richmond? Why not just move the operations overseas? They're fighting a losing battle in the US. Smoking has been banned in airplanes, restaurants, bars. I don't know anybody who would smoke at a party – even in their own house. What are thry tryintg to accomplish in the US? They've lost – haven't they?

    TJ smoked dope? That could explain his love of France.

    RBV – Not sure about people growing their own. Does anybody grow their own tobacco? Even the moonshine stills are mostly gone. I know some boys and girls down in Georgia who make their own peach wine. But they tell me it's because they can't buy anything that suits their tastes.

  7. "Not sure about people growing their own. Does anybody grow their own tobacco?"

    Your comparing apples to oranges.

    Somebody, someplace is obviously growing the stuff….it's the number one cash crop in several states. Not so with tobacco because even if you could grow your own it still has to be refined in order to get it into cigarette form….not the case with marijuana.

    "Even the moonshine stills are mostly gone."

    hmmmmm….there's plenty of moonshine around if you know where to look for it.

    "But why does PM have to operate in the US….?"

    Well said. But then again, if Tobacco is regulated by the FDA that would mean it's a drug…and it looks like it's going to be classified as a dangerous drug… and it's illegal to import "dangerous" drugs into the country….right??

  8. Larry G Avatar

    but it's a good question. For instance, Garmin a major maker of GPS devices is headquartered in the Cayman Islands.

    Why not PM and tobacco becomes an export?

    You know ..like we did alcohol way back when and we had the romance of the rum-runners… not unlike the "romance" of the cocaine runners of today – eh?

    I don't buy the "they'll grow it themselves" … if that were true… people would make their own beer (which they can legally) instead of the multi- billion dollar industry it is….

    why do we import Bombay Sapphire when it is a super easy product to make at home – for your own consumption?

    RPV misses the point here.

    some folks WOULD growth their own just as some folks make their own beer and wine but how many MORE folks would buy and use "weed" if it were as legal as alcohol and cigarettes are?

    I'd say there is quite a huge market.."out there".

    but see.. we've got this concept that "weed" is a "gateway drug" … and it leads to hard core drugs… and we'll end up with a country full of zombies…

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    "Anybody that smokes pot would simply grow their own if it were legalized,"

    The reason they grow their own is because it is NOT legal. When cigarettes are not legal people will grow their own tobacco, just as they made bathtub gin during prohibition.


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