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Outside editorial: Behind the smoke screen

Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

Cigarette makers do a lot more than shred tobacco and roll it up in thin sheets of paper. A December report by the surgeon general’s office outlined a host of changes that tobacco companies have made over the years to render smoking easier to start and harder to quit. For instance, vents and other filter designs make the smoke feel less harsh even though it does the same damage. A bigger, quicker hit of nicotine means faster addiction.

Strange to say, though, the government knows very little about these changes or when they took place or precisely what they entailed. Tobacco companies were never required by law to divulge the information, though some of it came out in class-action suits against the firms.

Packaged foods, over-the-counter pharmaceuticals and even cosmetics must be sold with a list of ingredients on their labels, but not cigarettes. People can check the fine print to see what’s in the shampoo they put on their hair but not the smoke that 20 percent of Americans inhale into their lungs.

Even the government hasn’t been given access to basic information about cigarettes. That’s being fixed right now thanks to a 2009 law that gave the FDA regulatory power over tobacco. Cigarette makers must provide a list of ingredients to the agency for each product. And this week, the FDA directed the companies to apply for permission if they want to change their products in any way and to disclose what the change is intended to accomplish. If the agency finds that the change will harm public health by, for example, making it easier for minors to develop a smoking habit or harder for them to quit, or delivering more toxic substances into a smoker’s body, it can block the change. The agency will also be looking back at any changes made since early 2007.

Unfortunately, the public won’t necessarily be privy to the same details. For each application, the FDA will decide whether the product information is a trade secret.

Even so, the new restrictions have enormous potential. Finally, a consumer protection agency will have access to information about important tobacco company practices, and the power to stop the most harmful of them. We predict that the companies will be less willing to even start the process once they know they’ll be held accountable.

But we also hope the FDA will impose tight standards on what can and cannot be considered a secret. Knowledge is a powerful public weapon against cigarettes, and smokers deserve to know more about how they have been manipulated and harmed in the interests of pumping up tobacco company profits. As a society, we may never eliminate one of our oldest public health scourges, but we can encourage a newly informed public to rise up against it.



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