Tobacco Law a Long-Awaited Victory for Public Health

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With the June passage of a historic tobacco regulation law, public health workers welcomed a set of new, long-awaited tools in the fight against smoking and its unfortunate death toll.

On June 22, President Barack Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products and marketing. Coming almost five decades after the surgeon general's first report on the harms of smoking and more than 10 years after Congress' first attempts to provide FDA with tobacco regulatory authority, the new law will affect how tobacco products are sold, marketed and produced, and will be financed via user fees on tobacco manufacturers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death, disability and disease in the United States, and is tied to more than 440,000 U.S. deaths each year and $96 billion in annual U.S. medical expenditures.

"It's a victory for health care reform, as it will reduce some of the billions we spend on tobacco-related health care costs in this country," Obama said during the bill's signing in Washington, D.C. "It's a law that will reduce the number of American children who pick up a cigarette and become adult smokers. And most importantly, it is a law that will save American lives and make Americans healthier."

With CDC reporting more than 1,000 U.S. youth starting a regular smoking habit every day, the new law is expected to give a major boost to anti-tobacco efforts aimed at young people. The FDA law bans all outdoor tobacco advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, bans all remaining tobacco-brand sponsorships of sports and entertainment events, bans free giveaways of non-tobacco items with the purchase of tobacco, and restricts tobacco vending machines to adult-only venues. The law also limits tobacco advertising in publications with high numbers of young readers to black-and-white text-only ads, and boosts enforcement against retailers who sell tobacco products to minors.

"This is the most important tobacco control legislation that the United States has ever enacted," Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told The Nation's Health. "It has the potential to bring about fundamental change in how tobacco products are marketed, manufactured and sold. Over the next decade, this should give a boost to efforts to discourage youth from starting smoking and significantly complement efforts to assist and encourage adults to quit."

In a significant coup for public health advocates, the new law also bans tobacco manufacturers from labeling their products as "light" or "low tar," and gives FDA the authority to regulate all so-called health claims about tobacco products to ensure such claims are scientifically based. Tobacco manufacturers will also be required to place larger, more graphic health warnings on their products. According to the law, cigarette health warnings must now cover the top 50 percent of the front and rear panels of the product package and FDA must issue rules requiring graphic warning labels on cigarettes within two years. With its new authority, FDA can also require changes in tobacco product ingredients, such as levels of nicotine or menthol. Although FDA gained new authority over tobacco product ingredients, the law stipulates it will not be permitted to require nicotine levels be reduced to zero and cannot ban a class of tobacco products.

Public health advocates are celebrating FDA's newfound authority, including APHA's Executive Director Georges Benjamin, MD, FACP, FACEP (E), who attended the bill signing. …