Jacob Sullum

Last week the House Energy and Commerce Committee overwhelmingly approved legislation that would authorize the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate tobacco products. Since the FDA is usually portrayed as a benevolent (if occasionally sleepy) watchdog, you might assume the bill is all about consumer protection. But it's actually aimed at consumer prevention ,which is not quite the same thing.

A consumer protection bill that reduced competition, raised prices, restricted choice, blocked information and made products more hazardous could not really be counted as a success. Yet the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which has broad support in both houses of Congress, promises to do all these things in an effort to discourage consumption.

The act imposes new regulatory burdens and advertising restrictions that will help industry leader Philip Morris, which supports the bill, maintain its market-share advantage over smaller cigarette manufacturers, which oppose the bill. The compliance costs and reduced competition are likely to raise prices. This counts as an advantage if your goal is "smoking prevention" but a disadvantage if your goal is to buy a pack of cheap smokes.

Likewise, the bill restricts variety, which consumers like but public-health paternalists do not. Under the act, smokers will be allowed to choose any cigarette flavor they like, as long as it's menthol (which happens to be the one flavor Philip Morris uses). Although people above the age of 18 have been known to enjoy the occasional clove cigarette, Camel Crema or Kool Caribbean Chill, these flavored varieties have been deemed too kid friendly and therefore inconsistent with the goal of smoking prevention.

While added flavors (except for menthol) are unambiguously evil, toxins and carcinogens may have a positive role to play if they discourage people from smoking by raising the specter of cancer, heart disease and emphysema. Hence the bill instructs the FDA to approve a "modified risk tobacco product" only if it would "benefit the health of the population as a whole, taking into account both users of tobacco products and persons who do not currently use tobacco products."


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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