A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry

By Kazman, Sam | Ideas on Liberty, September 2002 | Go to article overview

A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry


Kazman, Sam, Ideas on Liberty


A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry by David Kessler PublicAffairs * 2001 * 492 pages * $27.50 cloth; $16.50 paperback Reviewed by Sam Kazman

How should we regard the tobacco industry? Specifically, how should we view its actions before the late 1990s, when a combination of regulatory and litigation onslaughts changed its very nature? Before that time, was the industry engaged in dishonestly hooking the public on a product that it knew to be deadly, or was it legitimately catering to human desires?

My own view is that once the federal government mandated cigarette warning labels in 1965, people had adequate notice of the risks of smoking. This was so even though the industry continued to argue there was no proven link between smoking and disease, and even though tobacco ads were full of healthy, vibrant people. Perhaps there was a time before 1965 when the industry was culpable, but not after the advent of health warnings.

But even this view leaves many open questions. I didn't expect to have them all resolved by David Kessler's book, but I was surprised at how few answers it actually provides.

A Question of Intent is Kessler's account of his campaign, as head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to regulate tobacco. It begins with his appointment as commissioner in 1990 and ends a decade later, when the Supreme Court ruled that the FDA does not have the power to regulate tobacco as a medical drug or device. The FDA had considered and rejected regulating tobacco before 1990, but it was Kessler who came up with the innovative characterization of smoking as a pediatric disease. His book focuses on his hunt for proof of nicotine "spiking"-that is, that the industry chemically manipulated tobacco to raise either the amount or the impact of nicotine, supposedly to make a more addictive cigarette. If nicotine spiking occurred, this would allegedly be evidence that cigarettes were a pharmacological product subject to FDA control.

But is nicotine spiking bad? Higher nicotine, after all, means that a smoker can get the nicotine he craves with less tar, and tar is the real medical poison in cigarettes. In fact, there was a time when some health researchers expressly advocated nicotine spiking as means of reducing the risks of smoking. Kessler, unfortunately, ducks this issue.

The book occasionally reads like a good detective novel, but too often stumbles on details, mostly involving David Kessler. There is hardly a page that doesn't contain the words "I" or "me," and Kessler constantly reminds us of his devotion and diligence. Despite this, we get a surprisingly opaque picture of Kessler himself. …

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