Summer Sale Extended! Get unlimited digital access for 13 weeks for $13.
Editorial
News Opinion Editorial

FDA takes a stand on cigarettes

Last week the federal Food and Drug Administration quietly did something that it has never done before. For the first time in its history, the agency charged with protecting the public from harmful foods and medicines rejected a bid by the tobacco industry to put new products on the market, based on the fact that they posed a serious risk to public health.

Under a 2009 law supported by the Obama administration, the agency was granted the power to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products, including cigars, loose rolling tobacco, chewing tobacco and snuff. But until now it had never used that authority to block the sale of such products.

So it was something of a milestone when the agency announced Tuesday that it had authorized two new kinds of Newport cigarettes made by the Lorillard Tobacco Company but rejected four other products manufactured by companies it declined to name. Agency officials said the law forbade them from identifying the rejected products.

The FDA's action may seem relatively modest given the scale of the destruction wrought by tobacco products. But in fact it represents a sea change in the agency's attitude toward cigarettes. Before the 2009 law was passed, cigarette manufacturers were free to operate virtually without any meaningful federal oversight or regulation. Individual states were allowed to determine where and how tobacco products were sold within their borders, but they had no control over the ingredients those products contained.

Moreover, all this was happening at a time when cigarettes increasingly were being recognized as a leading cause of death in this country. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that smoking kills more people each year than HIV-AIDS, illegal drugs, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides and murders combined. Some 443,000 Americans die annually from smoking-related illnesses; worldwide, tobacco kills about 6 million people a year. The World Health Organization estimates that every 6.5 seconds a current or former smoker dies.

Yet the FDA's announcement marked the first time in history that a federal agency has ever told a tobacco manufacturer that it couldn't market a new cigarette because of the threat it posed to public health. That's a testament to the political clout the tobacco lobby traditionally has wielded, but as public attitudes toward smoking — and the staggering health-care costs associated with it — continue to evolve, the FDA's action offers hope the country may finally be ready to back stricter standards for cigarette manufacturers.

The four products rejected by the agency as too dangerous to market were all found to pose public health risks above and beyond comparable products already on the market. Unfortunately, the FDA didn't reveal the kinds or amounts of chemicals they contained.

That makes it difficult to judge precisely why those products were considered unsafe, but more importantly it leaves up in the air the whole question of what level of risk the agency deems unacceptable when it reviews new products. Given the huge number of people who succumb to smoking-related illnesses each year, it's hard to imagine any amount of nicotine, menthol, formaldehyde or other toxic chemicals contained in cigarettes that could reasonably be construed as harmless.

Still, the FDA has taken an important first step toward greater oversight of the tobacco industry in order to keep manufacturers' most dangerous products off the market. That, along with public health campaigns aimed at dissuading teenagers from taking up the habit and more restrictions on where and when adults can smoke, may finally begin to push down the toll in lives taken by tobacco as a result of illnesses that are largely preventable.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Mint-flavored, but more addictive

    Mint-flavored, but more addictive

    Our view: Having found that menthol cigarettes pose an increased risk to public health, the FDA should move to ban them

  • The Mandel legacy

    The Mandel legacy

    Marvin Mandel passed away on Sunday at the age of 95, but his legacy lives on, not only in his successes as governor but for his willingness to manipulate the legislative process to benefit his circles of friends who were, in turn, quite generous to him. Marylanders should not forget either side...

  • O'Malley's sweetheart deal

    O'Malley's sweetheart deal

    When Martin O'Malley left the governor's mansion in January, he and his wife were allowed to buy for $9,638 dozens of pieces of furniture the taxpayers had spent $62,000 to purchase, most of it eight years earlier, on the grounds that it was "junk" that would otherwise have been thrown away. Those...

  • Is Hillary 'likable enough'?

    Is Hillary 'likable enough'?

    Seven years ago, 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, in a New Hampshire primary debate, was asked about her personal appeal. Her prime opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, cheekily interjected: "You're likable enough, Hillary."

  • China's slowdown is good news for the U.S.

    China's slowdown is good news for the U.S.

    U.S. stocks have endured a lot of turmoil, but recent shocks have made apparent important facts about China and the shifting global economy long ignored by many analysts and investors. Those bode well for America and the bull market should soon resume.

  • The American nightmare

    The American nightmare

  • The path forward for city schools

    The path forward for city schools

    It's the first day of school in Baltimore, and I'm feeling the excitement and optimism I always feel on this day of the year. But in my decades as a teacher, administrator and superintendent, I have never felt more urgency and concern on a first day than I do today.

  • Caution: Children on board

    Caution: Children on board

    Across Maryland, most students are back in school as of today, and here's a preliminary number that schools, parents and everyone else ought to contemplate for the next nine months — 83. As a test score, that might not sound threatening, but it's no "B" and it's definitely not something that anyone...

Comments
Loading
71°