Marketing death

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Federal records show that in 1998, the year major tobacco companies reached agreement with 46 states to reimburse the states for health care costs stemming from tobacco use and to halt Big Tobacco's marketing assault on children, the cigarette makers spent $6.7 billion advertising and promoting their products. By 2005, that marketing megamachine had mushroomed to $13.4 billion. According to the calculations of one anti-tobacco activist group, that is $36.6 million a day, every day, for 365 days. Or $44.33 for every man, woman and child in the country. Just on marketing. And it is more than 22 times the $597.5 million spent collectively by the states on tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

That is free speech in a free society. Tobacco is, after all, a legal, if deadly, product.

But it also shows what health advocates are up against in combating the leading preventable cause of death in the country, one that is responsible for more than 400,000 deaths every year. Indeed, the latest survey of high school smoking by the Centers for Disease Control showed a slight but troubling increase in teen smoking after years of steady decline.

This challenge is compounded by Big Tobacco's remarkable creativity in finding ways around the restrictions in the 1998 settlement. Like candy-flavored cigarettes, or advertising suggestions that "low-tar" or "light" cigarettes are somehow healthier than regular cigarettes. And then, of course, there is the ruling last summer by federal Judge Gladys Kessler that tobacco companies had defrauded the public for decades regarding the health risks of smoking and the companies' marketing practices - and that they continued to do so even after the 1998 settlement.

All of which makes a compelling case for legislation establishing the authority of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco.

The Senate passed such a bill in 2004, but it was blocked from coming to a vote in the House. It has been reintroduced by key Democrats and Republicans in both houses this year, and it is believed to have a good chance of finally passing.

The legislation would prohibit the FDA from banning cigarettes or other tobacco products outright and from ordering a reduction of nicotine levels to zero. But it would enable the FDA to require full disclosure of the contents of cigarettes and other products.

And, perhaps most important, it would give the agency broad authority to curtail the marketing practices considered to have the most appeal to children and teens.

Finally, it would for the first time give states limited authority to also regulate tobacco marketing.

A recent scientific poll commissioned by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids showed that an astounding 77% of the country's voters supported giving regulatory authority over tobacco to the FDA. It was supported by Republicans, Democrats and independents, by voters in all sectors of the country, and even by 70% of smokers. Even the country's No. 1 cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, supports the bills.

The Senate could begin action on its bill as early as next month, though it will be anything but a slam-dunk in the House. But it should be.

Reprinted from The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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