Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., promises that his bill giving the Food and Drug Administration authority over tobacco products will "save lives." But it could kill people instead.
That's because the bill, which the Senate Health Committee is expected to consider soon, authorizes the FDA to block the introduction of safer tobacco products. In deciding whether to allow a new product on the market, the agency is supposed to weigh "the risks and benefits to the population as a whole." And what the FDA thinks is good for "the population as a whole" is not necessarily what's good for individual consumers.
In addition to the risk reduction offered by a new product, the FDA is supposed to consider whether its availability will discourage current users from quitting or lure new users who otherwise would not have tried tobacco. The upshot is that a demonstrably safer cigarette that smokers would welcome could be rejected because of its anticipated impact on "the population as a whole."
The same collectivist approach is reflected in a provision of the bill that prohibits risk comparisons between different kinds of tobacco products, information that a summary of the legislation calls "inherently misleading." Among other things, this restriction would prevent makers of smokeless tobacco, which is far less hazardous than cigarettes, from informing consumers of that fact.
Opponents of promoting smokeless tobacco as a safer alternative to cigarettes argue that the health benefits of such substitution would be outweighed by the health costs to new users attracted by the risk comparison and to smokers who otherwise would have decided to abstain from tobacco entirely. Given the huge magnitude of the risk reduction involved in switching from cigarettes to smokeless tobacco, this scenario is highly implausible.
In any case, it's wrong to insist that accurate, potentially life-saving information be withheld from consumers because they might not use it the "right" way. In a paper released last February, a leading British anti-smoking activist and five European scientists called this attitude "the health professional's authoritarian insistence that the only valid choice for smokers is to quit or die."
Another way in which Gregg's bill jeopardizes the health of smokers is by authorizing the FDA to order the reduction, or even elimination, of nicotine in cigarettes. Other things being equal, reducing nicotine content increases a smoker's exposure to the toxins and carcinogens in cigarette smoke, making the habit more dangerous.