Monday, June 15, 2009

More smoke and mirrors

On June 11, 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, was approved by the US Senate. The legislation effectively places tobacco under control of US FDA (Food and Drug Administration). A similar bill was passed in the House of Representatives last year. All that remains is for Congress to merge the two pieces of legislation and have it ratified by President Barack Obama.

The general consensus is that the legislation could turn out to be the nail in the coffin of the tobacco industry. The reality may be something else.

The bill gives the FDA the authority to limit advertising, require a more prominent display of health warnings on cigarette packs, reduce, but not eliminate nicotine content in cigarettes, and initiate a host of other regulatory measures designed to control the industry. Senator Ted Kennedy, a co-sponsor of the bill, claims that: “FDA action can play a major role in breaking the gruesome cycle that seduces millions of teenagers into a lifetime of addiction and premature death.”

But, although both the House and the Senate approved the bill by overwhelming majorities, not everyone is convinced that the legislation will have the desired effect of controlling the tobacco industry and reducing smoking prevalence.

Dr. Michael Siegel of Boston University School of Public Health has opposed the bill from the start. He notes that the FDA will not be able to eliminate the addictive substance (nicotine) from cigarettes. They can only reduce the amount of nicotine which will, in turn, force people to smoke more to satisfy their addiction.

Say Siegel: “ . . . it is inexcusable - in my view - for a politician to support such a bill and then to have the political gall to get up in front of the American people and tell them that he has done something to protect future generations of children from addiction and to help millions of smokers to quit.”

Siegel has written a number of articles on his blog, Tobacco Analysis , pointing out what he believes are the shortcomings of the bill. He appears to be especially outraged by the fact that the bill was a collaborative effort by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and Philip Morris, the leading cigarette manufacturer in the US.

In one article, he suggests that Philip Morris hoodwinked the politicians and the anti-smoker cartel supporting the bill to the detriment of public health. Siegel may well be right in that the bill mayl not benefit public health. But, whether anyone was hoodwinked, except maybe the public, is debatable.

Anti-smoker advocates claim there are roughly 450,000 deaths annually attributable to smoking in the US alone. Yet, the strongest response to these alleged smoking deaths is to increase already punitive taxes on tobacco, impose draconian smoking bans and generally make the lives of smokers miserable.

In contrast, the World Health Organization recently declared Swine Flu a pandemic. The world's death toll is roughly 100 from the virus that has sickened some 12,000 people.

The facts? In 1998, an agreement was hammered out between state attorneys-general and the tobacco companies. The tobacco industry agreed to pay roughly 250 billion dollars over 25 years to compensate state governments for the health care costs allegedly resulting from cigarette smoking. The payments are directly dependent on cigarette sales and the cost was passed on to tobacco consumers, meaning the agreement cost the tobacco companies nothing.

Other than the states who used the money to build roads, bridges and golf courses, the biggest beneficiaries were the anti-smoker groups who receive huge sums of money to sustain a de-normalization campaign against smokers.

More recently, President Barack Obama expanded a children’s health care initiative called SCHIP. The expanded program is expected to cost an additional 33 billion dollars annually. And the federal government is to fund it with an increase in tobacco taxes which has already taken effect.

Governments at both the state and federal level have, over the past decade, made themselves dependent on the tobacco industry for tens of billions of dollars annually in tobacco taxation. So, it should come as no surprise that there are many who believe the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act is simply so much window dressing.

The truth is, if smokers are addicted to tobacco, then governments are addicted to the revenue generated by tobacco taxation. But, could that addiction be strong enough for government to overlook the immense harm allegedly caused by smoking? Could any government really be that callous and irresponsible?

In the smoke and mirrors world of big government, the FDA legislation is unlikely to have any real impact on tobacco sales or consumption. That’s simply not in the best economic interests of the government. But the public perception is that the FDA legislation is a heavy-duty weapon in the undeclared war on smokers.

As Siegel said in one article, “All that matters is what the public thinks the bill will do. It's about political propaganda, not about a true concern for the protection of the public's health.”

But, I think he’s wrong in believing that Philip Morris conned both the government and the anti-smoker groups who supported the bill. I suspect all three factions bear equal responsibility for the perpetration of what appears to be a fraud on the American people.

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