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Carroll: New Tobacco Regulations, Same Smoke And Mirrors

Ever since the Surgeon General declared in 1964 that smoking carries severe health risks, there have been calls for the Food & Drug Administration to regulate cigarettes. Needless to say, tobacco companies have been on this issue like Brown on Williamson every time it’s surfaced.

Including the current effort, which now has both House and Senate approval, as well as the support of President Obama, who very much desires to be an ex-smoker, although we don’t know that he actually is.

Regardless, cigarette makers R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard have each underwritten ad campaigns opposing FDA oversight. RJR, home of the popular Camel brand, has run TV spots claiming the FDA is already too busy overseeing food safety, prescription drugs and medical devices to effectively regulate tobacco products.

“Some in Congress want to add to the FDA’s plate, proposing $7 billion for new tobacco regulations, when numerous agencies are already working to reduce tobacco use,” one spot goes. “Even the head of the FDA has concerns about the idea.”

Not to mention R.J. Reynolds’ concern that the $7 billion will come from cigarette company coffins – sorry, coffers.

Lorillard, maker of Newport and Kent cigarettes, has weighed in with an ad campaign that calls the new regulations outdated and redundant. But Philip Morris, home of the Marlboro brand, has actively supported FDA oversight of the tobacco industry, causing Lorillard to label the current legislation “The Marlboro Monopoly Act.”

That’s because FDA regulation will make it harder for competitors to introduce new brands or products, thereby essentially freezing the cigarette market with Philip Morris as industry leader.

The tobacco giant adopted the same strategy in the 1960s when the TV airwaves were filled with cigarette ads such as the one featuring Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble.

“Gee, we oughta do something Fred,” Barney says. “OK, how’s about taking a nap?” Fred replies. “I got a better idea — let’s take a Winston break,” Barney suggests. “That’s it!” Fred cries. “Winston is the one filtered cigarette that delivers flavor 20 times a pack.”

Problem was, broadcasters were required to deliver equal time to anti-smoking ads, which were torching cigarette sales. So in the late ‘60s, Philip Morris took the lead in promoting an end to all tobacco advertising on TV. That produced two immediate benefits: it eliminated the broadcasters’ obligation to provide free airtime for those pesky anti-smoking spots, and it froze the cigarette market with Philip Morris as, yes, the industry leader.

Back to the present: Under the new federal legislation, the FDA cannot ban tobacco or nicotine, but it does prohibit flavorings that make cigarettes more appealing to young smokers.

Except for menthol flavoring, a category where the industry leader is — wait for it — Philip Morris. In the world of tobacco regulation, it seems it’s always smoke and mirrors.

John Carroll is senior media analyst for WBUR and a mass communication professor at Boston University.

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