In an historic victory for America's children and health, President Obama on June 22, 2009, signed into law legislation giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate the manufacturing, marketing and sale of tobacco products. Because of this new law, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the most deadly product sold in America is finally being regulated to protect public health.
Among its provisions, the law requires large, graphic health warnings that cover the top half of the front and back of cigarette packs and 20 percent of advertisements. After extensive research and public input, the FDA has selected nine graphic warnings that will be required starting in September 2012.
Despite the strong scientific evidence supporting the warning labels and the congressional mandate requiring them, tobacco companies have filed two lawsuits challenging them.
In one case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the warnings requirement, finding it consistent with the First Amendment. In the second case, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit struck down the specific warnings required by the FDA. The government has asked the full court to rehear the case.
Already in effect are requirements of the law that:
Crack down on tobacco marketing and sales to kids. Specific provisions ban tobacco-brand sports and entertainment sponsorships, require that tobacco products be placed behind the counter in stores and strengthen enforcement and penalties to prevent tobacco sales to kids.
Ban deceptive cigarette labels such as "light" and "low-tar." For decades, the tobacco industry has used these terms to promote the falsehood that some cigarette brands are less harmful, and to discourage smokers from quitting.
Require larger health warnings on smokeless tobacco products. The new warnings cover 30 percent of principal package display panels and 20 percent of advertisements.
The FDA's Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee reported in March 2011 that the availability of menthol cigarettes increases the number of children and African Americans who smoke, and concluded that removing menthol cigarettes from the market would improve public health. The FDA is now reviewing the panel’s report.
The tobacco companies are already trying to evade the new regulations. They have challenged the marketing restrictions in courts (and had most of their claims denied).
In addition, the companies have introduced lighter-colored packaging for light brands and switched to terms such as "gold" and "silver" to replace "light" and "ultra-light." The goal is to continue to deceive smokers that some cigarettes are safer so they won't quit.
The FDA must closely monitor attempts to evade the law and take aggressive action to stop the tobacco industry from continuing to target children and mislead consumers. The agency has the authority to stop the tobacco companies from explicitly or implicitly suggesting that a particular cigarette brand is less harmful than others. This law represents the strongest action the federal government has ever taken to reduce tobacco use, the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
Members of Congress and public health organizations worked for more than a decade to grant the FDA this authority. The legislation was sponsored by the late Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and U.S. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Todd Platts (R-PA).