The Tobacconist’s Lament: The Government’s Campaign Against Cigarettes And Fast Food

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Congress has finally come within a day or two of finalizing a bill the will have the FDA regulate the tobacco industry. The markets of cigarettes, cigars, and chew have avoided the government’s boot heel for decades. The only challenge to the sector’s phenomenal cash flow has been a string of liability suits accusing firms like Altria (MO) of knowingly selling carcinogens to the general population which dodging the health hazards of smoking. The industry has, in general, gotten off lightly in the court system.

The regulation is a mixed blessing. Experts claim that Altria is happy to have FDA oversight because most marketing of tobacco products will be sharply curtailed. The market share leader often likes to see the weapon of advertising taken out of the hands of competitors.

The wonder of the new bill is that the FDA will regulate tobacco and the poison chemicals in cigarettes but the use of cigarettes will not be directly curtailed. According to The New York Times, “health advocates predict that F.D.A. product standards could eventually reduce some of the 60 carcinogens and 4,000 toxins in cigarette smoke, or make them taste so bad they deter users.” The idea that making cigarettes taste bad will cut smoking is hardly an effective approach to undermining tobacco addiction, thereby improving the health of millions of people. Scotch, in the opinion of many people, is the vilest tasting drink the world. That has not stopped alcoholics from drinking themselves to death by consuming gallons of single malt.

Advocates of tobacco regulation have waited so long for the approval of forcing the tobacco companies under FDA regulation that the event itself is a sort of anticlimax. Cigarette use is not being banned. Addicts will be addicts. Modest alterations to the content of tobacco products are not going to change that.

The long and difficult road to getting government control of smoking products opens the door to a more difficult set of issues. Since weight and fatty foods are becoming nearly as deadly as smoking, particularly as the number of obese people has increased and the number of smokers has fallen, the government, if it is going to be consistent about creating regulations to improve health, will need to find a way to clamp down on fast food. There may not be scientific proof that eating 3,500 calories of McDonald’s food a day for forty years is as deadly as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, but consuming that much fat laden fare is dangerous.

The government has a history of regulating and banning dangerous substances and habits. None of it has worked particularly well. People want to enjoy their vices whether it kills them or note. Warning people about risks has only been moderately successful. Abolishing the sale or manufacturing of dangerous substances like alcohol has been a failure. The “war on drugs” has not turned out particularly well. Some drugs, like marijuana, are probably less dangerous than cigarettes. That has not kept the federal government from spending billions of dollars to keep pot and other drugs off the streets.

The government’s position on cigarettes is that they are extreme health hazards that have killed tens of millions of people and cost the healthcare system trillions of dollars. Each of those things is true. It is equally true that legislating control of people’s habits, especially the ones that they find pleasurable, is impossible.

The war on smoking is not at all like the war on drugs. The government collects huge sums in taxes from the sale of tobacco. It is ironic that it wants to take a substantial portion of the money and use it to regulate what goes into cigarettes and stipulate how they will be marketed. It is behavior that makes bringing the deficit down more difficult by keeping a sin tax high but using receipts to abolish the sin.

The big tobacco companies actually got what they wanted as the FDA steps in to regulate them. It will be harder to sue the firms once the government is passing judgment on how they do marketing and what chemicals their products contain. The industry may end up being more profitable as legal costs and settlement fees disappear.

Putting tobacco company behavior under the FDA does everything that the government wants from the regulation of the industry, except the ability to make even one single person stop smoking.

Douglas A. McIntyre