The US Senate is considering a bill that would enable the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) to regulate the levels of tar, nicotine and other harmful components of tobacco products. Cigarette smoke alone contains some 4,000 chemicals, more than 40 of which are known to cause cancer.
Commending the bill, Dr. David Burns, scientific editor of several surgeon general reports on tobacco, said it could help minimize the toxicity of cigarettes.
New products would need FDA approval before they could be sold, according to the legislation. The bill also would authorize the FDA to set national standards for tobacco products to control how they are made, as well as force the disclosure of their ingredients, including compounds and additives, and in what quantities. That, supporters claim, should help expose and ultimately limit the ways cigarettes are engineered to the detriment of the public's health.
But some have a different take. "It would still be a deadly product. They are not going to make it a safe product by taking out particular smoke constituents. The problem is the public is going to perceive the product is safe because the FDA has assumed jurisdiction," points out Dr. Michael Siegel, a Boston University School of Public Health professor.
But at the very least the bill would keep tobacco companies from tinkering with their products in ways that would make them any more dangerous, supporters counter.
"The tobacco industry would not be allowed to manipulate the ingredients — like increase nicotine or decrease nicotine or whatever they do — without disclosing it," said M. Cass Wheeler, chief executive officer of the American Heart Association. "The bill would put the burden of proof on industry to demonstrate to the FDA that what they're doing would not be more harmful," Wheeler said.
When asked for some likely targets that regulators could tackle, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chemist David Ashley rattled off more than a half dozen compounds in tobacco and smoke that worry scientists, even though it's unclear just how beneficial removing or reducing their levels would be. They include:
_Nitrosamines, a potent carcinogen. The burley tobacco used in American cigarettes is especially high in nitrosamines.
_Acetaldehyde, a potential carcinogen that may make tobacco more addictive. It's produced when sugars, added to tobacco, are burned.
_Cadmium and lead, two heavy metals that are toxic. Their levels generally depend on the environmental conditions where the tobacco is grown.
But Ashley, an expert in the constituents of tobacco and tobacco smoke, cautions that cigarettes are a very complex product and have traditionally changed with time as manufacturers tinker with them.
"One problem from a scientific standpoint is the product changes so often but the health effects are long-term. The cigarettes people are smoking today aren't the cigarettes of 10 years ago," Ashley said. "It's hard to link a change in the products to a particular health end point because there's nothing you can get your hands around."
As for the FDA, its commissioner von Eschenbach said recently he wouldn't want his agency put in the position where it had to determine a cigarette is safe.
Strangely, Philip Morris USA, maker of Marlboro, the nation's top-selling cigarette brand, supports the bill.
But why? R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and others who oppose the legislation will tell you restrictions on advertising contemplated in the bill would only help cement Philip Morris' No. 1 market position!