AP: FDA Commissioner Lukewarm on Tobacco Regulation

Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation that would put tobacco regulation under the responsibilities of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, the man who would oversee the FDA’s tobacco regulation, FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, isn’t sure that it’s such a good idea.

In an interview with the Associated Press this week, von Eschenbach seemed unwilling for the agency to take on that task. “We have the opportunity to take a very important comprehensive public-health approach to this problem,” he told the AP. “And it’s not a matter of giving FDA regulation or authority. It’s a matter of addressing the public-health problem that’s before us.”

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act would give the FDA control over all cigarette sales and advertising and would also place some significant restrictions on how the products are marketed. In addition, the FDA would be able to put a limit on acceptable nicotine levels. As it stands today, the tobacco industry itself is responsible for determining nicotine levels in cigarettes.

However, von Eschenbach believes that reducing nicotine levels might actually do greater harm than good. “We could find ourselves in the conundrum of having made a decision about nicotine only to have made the public health radically worse,” he said. “And that is not the position FDA is in; we approve products that enhance health, not destroy it.” He also voiced his concerns that FDA regulation of tobacco would amount to a de facto approval of cigarettes by the agency: “What I don’t want to see happen is that we are in a position where we are determining that a cigarette is safe.”

Critics fear that the FDA (and the Bush Administration at large) may be merely acting to shield tobacco companies from excessive regulation. In addition, many researchers charge that von Eschenbach’s claim that reducing nicotine levels would lead to an increase in cigarettes smoked is not accurate. According to the AP, “a small study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute which von Eschenbach once led suggested gradually reducing nicotine levels doesn’t force smokers to compensate by smoking more or inhaling more deeply. In fact, a gradual reduction can wean smokers from the habit.”

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