Will tobacco regulation change cigs?

A smoker with a cigarette.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Not to get too far down into the bond market weeds on you here, but the Treasury auctioned off a new set of ten-year notes today. Wound up having to pay quite a bit more interest than they'd expected. A sign, perhaps, that the market here is as worried about those rising federal debts as the Russians are.

The Senate is considering a piece of legislation that would regulate the tobacco industry. The House has already passed its version of the landmark bill. And President Obama -- who's been known to take a puff or two in the past -- is expected to sign it. This bill is a big deal because for the first time it'll let the Food and Drug Administration regulate tobacco as a drug. But as Marketplace's Sarah Gardner reports it's not clear how much cigarettes are going to change in the end.


SARAH GARDNER: This legislation gives the Food and Drug Administration authority over tobacco products for the first time ever. American Cancer Society lobbyist Gregg Haifley says it's about time.

GREGG HAIFLEY: The tobacco industry has been in the industry that is in the business of producing, marketing and selling addiction, and disease, and death-causing products.

Under this bill, the FDA would impose sweeping new limits on tobacco advertising, especially to kids. It would demand more explicit and bigger warning labels and ban advertising terms like "low tar" or "mild." Health advocates say those are misleading.

But it also gives the government power to limit the levels of nicotine and other ingredients in tobacco products.

BILL PHELPS: We believe that FDA regulations could provide some clear guidelines and some oversight of products that could potentially reduce the harm caused by smoking.

That's no anti-tobacco crusader. That's Bill Phelps of Phillip Morris, the nation's largest cigarette maker. The company not only supports this legislation, it helped shape it. But Phillip Morris won't say whether it's already started re-formulating its brands. Other cigarette makers didn't get back to us.

Meantime health advocates are skeptical FDA regulation will result in a safer cigarette.

STANTON GLANTZ: It's kind of like trying to push a balloon into a box that isn't quite big enough.

That's researcher and anti-tobacco activist Stanton Glantz at U.C. San Francisco.

GLANTZ: You can push down the levels of one thing or another but in doing that you usually push up the level of other bad things.

Glantz worries Congress has made too many concessions in this legislation, like letting the tobacco industry sit on a scientific advisory panel. Other political compromises were probably inevitable, like no outright ban on nicotine. That's the stuff that makes cigarettes so addictive. Matthew Myers is president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

MATTHEW MYERS: We've tried prohibition before. Prohibition of an addictive product with 40 million American users won't produce a public health benefit.

That's 40 million smokers and falling. But the tobacco industry can still count on the rest of the world. Last year, Phillip Morris International sold over 800 billion cigarettes. Bigger sales are expected in 2009.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

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