Fight Smoke with Fire

Sometime soon, on the basis of two years of exhaustive investigation and legal analysis, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler is likely to make a formal finding that tobacco products, cigarettes, and smokeless tobacco are drug delivery devices within his agency's jurisdiction. He will likely find that tobacco companies target teenagers in their marketing strategies and deliberately manipulate nicotine levels in their products to create and sustain nicotine addiction. And, he will probably conclude, since 90 percent of smokers become addicted before the age of 21, nicotine addiction is a pediatric disease.

With that finding, Kessler is likely to consider the following initiatives:

  • restrictions designed to limit youth access to tobacco (already in place but ineffective), such as barring the sale of cigarettes in unattended vending machines;
  • limited restraints on advertising and promotion techniques, such as seductive images, that induce children to use tobacco;
  • the inclusion of information about the addictive nature of nicotine or the other potentially harmful additives and constituents in tobacco products; and
  • an educational program targeted at children.

When Kessler begins this campaign, the tobacco industry will try to rally the public with claims that federal bureaucrats are hell-bent to deny their right to smoke. But Kessler has said repeatedly that he has no such plan or desire. Instead, Kessler will most likely focus on measures that would prevent another generation of children from becoming hooked and that should affect adult smokers only tangentially.

Right now, tobacco lobbyists are already hard at work persuading White House political operatives that the president's hostility toward tobacco was a major cause of congressional Democrats' disastrous losses in the South and that only by publicly halting and repudiating Kessler do the Democrats have a prayer of reclaiming tobacco-state votes in 1996. This argument is disingenuous and self-serving, but, more to the point, it's wrong. In deciding whether or not to give Kessler vigorous support, President Clinton need not chose between virtue and expediency. Protecting children from tobacco is a winning issue.

Kessler's prospective measures are totally consistent with the president's principled support for health promotion and in particular antismoking efforts aimed at children. This president has been the most forthright in history in addressing the magnitude of the problem posed by tobacco use in the United States. He declared the White House smoke-free and proposed a 75-cent cigarette excise tax as a cornerstone of health care reform, while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has instituted smoke-free-workplace rule initiatives. This principled, consistent stand has been popular among the relatively few who are aware of it. Standing tall against the industry's lobbying allows the president to demonstrate and publicize his constancy in pursuit of principle. Caving in to the tobacco lobby would reinforce public fears of a waffling president with no principled core.

President Clinton has framed much of his opposition to the new Republican majority as a defense of children. Kessler's campaign to protect children from tobacco companies meshes with these themes nicely. Polling data also consistently show overwhelming public support for restricting children's access to tobacco. A Robert Wood Johnson poll, for example, shows 91 percent support for a ban on vending machines "which are accessible to kids." Seventy-three percent believe limiting advertisements to words--that is, to "tombstone" advertising, a peculiarly apt term in this case--would reduce their appeal.

Despite current antipathy to government regulation, the November 1994 elections confirmed public support for strong measures to discourage tobacco use. Defying general antitax sentiment, voters in conservative Arizona supported a major increase in the state's tobacco tax. An outspoken supporter of the Arizona tax referendum was none other than former Senator Barry Goldwater. While Californians were reelecting their Republican governor, they rejected, by 70 percent to 30 percent, an effort by the tobacco industry to weaken California's laws protecting nonsmokers. The margin was no smaller even in conservative Orange County.


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Support for tobacco control measures is at least as strong, if not stronger, among the conservative middle class that Democrats lost in 1994. According to a December 1994 evaluation by Mathematica Policy Research of data collected for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, "conservative Democrats consistently demonstrated greater support for tobacco control measures than other groups."

Surprisingly, support for tobacco control cuts across geographic lines and is as strong in the tobacco-growing South as in other regions: 75.4 percent of the southerners in the Robert Wood Johnson poll favor banning cigarette vending machines, 1.5 percent more than the national average. Even Greensboro, North Carolina, the home of an RJR cigarette factory, adopted a strong smoke-free ordinance--and then defeated an industry-led recall initiative.

Support for tobacco control is as intense as it is broad. The Robert Wood Johnson poll reveals that 44 percent of the population believe they have lost family members or close friends to tobacco-related diseases, and these people are markedly more supportive of policies designed to limit tobacco promotion to minors.

But if Clinton supports the FDA, isn't he vulnerable to attacks on big government? Not in this instance. The FDA is trusted, even popular. Of all the functions of the federal government, protection of health and safety enjoys the highest support, and the FDA is one agency that symbolizes that support. Even a poll commissioned by the right-wing Citizens for a Sound Economy, whose questions were designed to evoke chords of discontent with the FDA, could not shake the confidence that most people express in the agency. Two thirds of those polled held a favorable opinion of the FDA. Two years ago even Newt Gingrich acknowledged in a letter to the Coalition on Smoking OR Health that FDA regulation of cigarettes was a reasonable exercise of its responsibilities.

The tobacco industry, by contrast, is in chronically low repute. That ill repute rubs off on politicians who consort with it. Nothing more belies the new Republican congressional leadership's claim to speak for the people than its sordid ties to the tobacco lobby. The issue promises a great contrast between Clinton and his likely 1996 foes. Bob Dole and Phil Gramm are closely aligned with tobacco, and Pete Wilson's campaign manager is a former vice president for Philip Morris.

Although tobacco regulation is not at the top of the public agenda, battling Big Tobacco is unlikely to fade into obscurity. In March, CBS's 60 Minutes presented a scathing profile of a former tobacco lobbyist, Victor Crawford, now afflicted with throat cancer, who calmly admitted lying for the money. Several print and TV investigative reporters and teams are preparing exposés of the close connections between the tobacco lobby and the new leaders of Congress (as well as the old). Newsweek already heralded the election results as the triumph of the "Merchants of Death"--tobacco, booze, and guns. Let the Republicans smoke, drink, and shoot themselves in the foot.

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