To the long list of "unthinkable" recent events, from the Evil Empire's fall to Japan's stumbling economy, add another earthshaker--a federal regulator with real power has threatened to ban cigarettes. U.S. Surgeons General have long labeled cigarettes dangerous, but they've had no actual muscle to curb their use.
On Feb. 25, however, Dr. David A. Kessler, the Food & Drug Administration's commissioner, declared that the FDA may have legal authority to regulate the nicotine in cigarettes--the same way the agency regulates drugs. Since the addictive substance never could pass the "safe and effective" test for pharmaceuticals, that could lead to "removal from the market of tobacco products containing nicotine," Kessler wrote in a letter to an antismoking group.
Smokers, relax: Uncle Sam isn't about to snatch your Winstons away. But the FDA chief is shrewdly using the threat to prod Congress into passing a badly needed round of curbs less draconian than a total ban on all smokes containing nicotine. "We'd much prefer Congress to deal with this," an FDA official explains. And it's high time Congress stood up to the powerful tobacco lobby and did something.
"DOSE UNIT." Two developments prompted Kessler's ploy. One was the disclosure in several recent lawsuits of internal industry documents that show tobacco companies regard nicotine as a drug. A 1973 Philip Morris Cos. memo examining why people smoke said: "Without nicotine...there would be no smoking.... Think of the cigarette as a dispenser for a dose unit of nicotine."
Equally important is a new political climate swirling around tobacco. The industry is reeling from a spate of state and local laws that prohibit smoking in public areas. And the companies get more grief almost daily: McDonald's Corp.'s Feb. 23 announcement of a smoking ban in its outlets, Surgeon General Joycelyn M. Elders' Feb. 24 attack on cigarette marketing to youths, and research showing fetuses contain chemicals from passive smoke.
What's more, cigarette makers are fighting President Clinton's proposal to boost cigarette taxes threefold to help finance health-care reform--and facing a growing antipathy toward smokers. "The agency could have carved out a legal theory to support regulation several years ago, but it would have been dumb because of the political climate," says one FDA official. "Now it's more acceptable to take on the industry."
The question is whether a majority of lawmakers agrees. Representative Mike Synar (D-Okla.) and Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) are already planning hearings and working on bills that would grant the FDA such intermediate powers as regulating nicotine levels and cracking down on advertising and promotion. As these bills progress, "we'll find out how powerful the tobacco industry still is," says Richard A. Daynard, head of the Tobacco Products Liability Project, a clearinghouse for cigarette-related suits at Northeastern University Law School.
Predictably, cigarette makers are counterattacking. Not only is the FDA on shaky legal ground, they say, but new regulations would take away people's "right to make individual choices," argues a spokeswoman for RJR Nabisco Inc.'s tobacco unit.
Sorry, RJR, but it's time for action. The statistics are just too grim. More than 430,000 Americans die each year of tobacco-related causes. The annual cost: $68 billion in health-care expenses and lost productivity, estimates the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. That's more than the $46.7 billion Americans spend on tobacco. And while there is no evidence that cigarette makers are deliberately boosting nicotine levels to hook new smokers, as some critics charge, companies clearly manipulate levels (table) and are aware of the substance's druglike power.
What kind of new regulations should Congress pass? The best approach is simply to make it harder for the industry to persuade people to puff in the first place. That means giving the FDA the power to ban ads and promotions, especially those aimed at kids. "When they purchase cigarettes for the first time, teenagers don't think they are buying into a lifelong addiction," explains Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of a House health subcommittee. The new regs should also include stronger warning labels and some control over levels of nicotine and potentially dangerous additives. Congress might even consider banning smoking in most public places. Add these new measures to the public's growing aversion to smoking, and cigarettes may never be Kool again.
TABLE: THE ADDICTIVE PUNCH OF CIGARETTES The tobacco industry has cut average nicotine levels from 2 milligrams per cigarette in the 1950s to 0.8 mg today. But most popular brands contain plenty of nicotine to hook smokers: Brand Nicotine (Milligrams per cigarette) WINSTON 1.5 CAMEL (unfiltered) 1.5 NEWPORT 1.3 MARLBORO 1.1 KOOL 1.1 VIRGINIA SLIMS 1.0 NOW 0.1 CARLTON less than 0.05 DATA: THE TOBACCO INSTITUTE, FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION