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Who Controls the Burning Leaves? Pending Legislation Might Give Tobacco Regulatory Power to the FDA

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A few decades ago, Bob Newhart did a classic comedy bit in which he went back in time to the 16th century and had a telephone conversation with Sir Walter Raleigh, the subject at hand being Raleigh's idea to introduce tobacco to the American colonists.

"You can chew it? Or put it in a pipe. Or you can shred it up and put it on a piece of paper, and roll it up – don't tell me, Walt, don't tell me- you stick in your ear, right Walt? Oh, between your lips! Then what do you do to it? (Giggling) You set fire to it! Then what do you do, Walt? You inhale the smoke! You set fire to it! Then what do you do Walt? You inhale the smoke! Walt, we've been a little worried about you… you're gonna have a tough time getting people to stick burning leaves in their mouth…"

Over the centuries, millions of people have stuck those burning leaves in their mouths, and millions of people have died as a result. Although educational efforts have paid off in terms of reducing the number of smokers in the US, tobacco still represents a serious health risk to people around the world.

I've always thought it odd that tobacco is freely available in the marketplace, whereas if another product (let's say cookies, for example), were to contain the same cancer-causing agents as tobacco, it would never see the light of day. Well, it turns out there's a reason for that. Although congress has passed some anti-tobacco laws, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have the power to regulate tobacco. They tried to establish regulations, but of course the tobacco companies fought them, went to court, and won.

But now congress is trying to pass a new bill that would give the FDA the power to (among other things) regulate the levels of harmful substances in tobacco, and in the process (according to proponents of the bill) create a safer cigarette. But of course, a "safer" cigarette is a long way from a "safe" cigarette, and if, by giving the FDA this new power, you create the impression in people's minds that cigarettes are safe, and more people take up the habit, you're not really solving the problem.

Of course, you can expect the tobacco companies to put up a big fight. I'm sure they've got lobbyists frantically trying to kill the bill. But with Americans increasingly turning against tobacco, their days of doing pretty much whatever they want may be numbered.

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About Doug DeLong