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Published: Monday, 2/26/2007

Tobacco's time has come

NOW that a comprehensive smoking ban is the law in Ohio and bans are gaining a foothold across the country, this could be the year that Congress finally musters the political fortitude to authorize the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco like many other consumer products.

Regulation of nicotine as a drug has been an issue in Washington since long before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the FDA needed explicit approval from lawmakers.

Legislation to do so was popular enough to be enacted in 2004 but was stonewalled by Republican leaders who have since departed or are on the back bench with Democrats in control.

A proposal introduced last week has the backing of Rep. Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, a veteran foe of the tobacco industry. His Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Tom Davis, of the tobacco state of Virginia, predicted the bill could pass the House with a large enough bipartisan majority to override a possible veto by President Bush.

This is an issue that Congress should have addressed long before now. Progress has been made on battling the proven public health dangers of tobacco, including bans on smoking in public places, such as the one approved by Ohio voters last November. But more action is needed.

Regulating nicotine in tobacco would be a logical step, inasmuch as federal law already allows its regulation in nicotine gum, patches, and nasal sprays.

Moreover, scientific studies indicate the tobacco companies have been loading up their products with the drug even as consumers are smoking less.

The school of public health at Harvard University recently confirmed a survey by Massachusetts state researchers showing that nicotine levels in cigarettes rose by about 11 percent from 1997 to 2005.

The survey, based on statistics submitted to the state by cigarette companies, indicates that the industry wants to keep its customers hooked, even though many now recognize the dangers of smoking and would like to quit.

The legislation in Congress wouldn't ban either smoking or nicotine in tobacco products, much as many of us would prefer it. But the bill would allow the FDA to ban such claims as "low tar" unless they are backed up by scientific evidence.

In order to discourage young tobacco recruits, candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes would be outlawed, and stronger strictures would be set against sales and advertising aimed at children.

Despite continuing claims to the contrary, there is no longer any doubt scientifically that tobacco smoke - and particularly secondhand smoke - causes a host of health problems in smokers and those who can't avoid inhaling the fumes.

Cancer, heart disease, and emphysema all come from smoking and more than 400,000 Americans succumb to them each year.

It's time to take the long-overdue step of regulating nicotine and start saving lives instead of snuffing them out.



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