Will new FDA regulations curb tobacco use?

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© Jonathan A. Myers - The Stock Co/Science Faction/Corbis

Exactly one year after Congress passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act that gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to regulate tobacco, a new set of rules is taking effect to curb the use of deceptive marketing terms and limit children’s access to tobacco products. Among the new regulations that take effect today is the prohibition of marketing terms such as “light,” “low-tar” or “mild” on cigarette packages, which critics have long said convey a false sense of safety about those products.

Under the new FDA rules that take effect today, sale of tobacco products to anyone under age 18 anywhere in the country is illegal, as is sale of individual cigarettes or anything less than a full 20-pack at a time. Additionally, manufacturers will now be required to dedicate more package space on smokeless tobacco products to warning labels.

Yet while public health advocates embrace the changes, some suggest that these latest efforts don’t go far enough toward ultimately deterring people from tobacco use. David Kessler, former FDA chair, has long championed reducing nicotine content in tobacco products, a change which is within the FDA’s authority and could make tobacco products less addictive, the Associated Press points out. While most smokers currently consume up to 3 milligrams of nicotine each time they smoke a cigarette, under Kessler’s proposal that would drop to 1 milligram or less per cigarette. As he told the AP:

“The tobacco industry knew 40 years ago that there was a threshold below which people would quit… Reducing the level of nicotine in cigarettes will change cigarette smoking as we know it. It is the ultimate harm reduction strategy… It is now time to reverse the trajectory of smoking initiation, sustained addiction and premature death,” he said. “Ultimately the agency’s success needs to be measured in terms of the number of people who smoke and the number of kids who start.”

Yet aggressive anti-smoking changes like that aren’t likely to be introduced anytime soon. And as it is, critics say that tobacco manufacturers are already finding ways around the newly introduced restrictions. For example, manufacturers have one month to swap out old packages that use terms like “mild” and “low-tar,” yet the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids points out that they are replacing those products with a color-coded system — where lighter colors are used to stand in for those old terms. The ultimate effect is the same critics say, with lighter colors conveying a false sense of “safer” tobacco products.

In New York City — where a new tax will bump the cost per pack to about $11 as of July 1 — public health officials have launched a TV ad campaign designed to undermine any notion of “safer” tobacco products implied by color-coded packages. In the ads, as graphic images of heart disease, throat, mouth and lung cancer are displayed, a stern voice warns against putting stock in lighter colored packages, declaring: “Don’t be fooled, all cigarettes contain the same poisons that make you sick and kill you.”

Yet apart from the ads, several tobacco companies already filed a lawsuit challenging a decision made by the New York City Board of Health that requires all merchants to prominently display tobacco health warning signs or face up to $2,000 in fines. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, the posters, the lawsuit claims, do not present health risks of smoking in “purely factual terms.” The signs often obstruct view of the merchandise as well and goes beyond health warnings to promoting information on how to quit smoking, the lawsuit claims. The resolution requiring prominent display of the posters was passed in September.

One of the New York City Health department ads targeting color-coded cigarette packing: