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Pushing nicotine

TEN YEARS ago, Bill Clinton's Food and Drug Administration tried to regulate tobacco as a highly addictive substance. The Supreme Court said it could not, unless Congress gave it the explicit power. The case for Congress to do that was strengthened this week by a state Department of Public Health study showing that tobacco companies increased levels of nicotine in most cigarette brands by an average of 10 percent between 1998 and 2004.

Nicotine is the addictive material in tobacco that makes it so difficult for smokers to quit, despite the fact that smoking is the leading cause of preventable death. Quietly raising nicotine levels at a time when states were banning smoking in public places and raising tobacco taxes has helped the industry to keep a steady 20 percent or more of adult Americans hooked as customers.

Massachusetts is just one of three states to track the contents of cigarette smoke. Its test is in line with a National Cancer Institute recommendation that testers get a true reading on the levels of nicotine by accounting for the fact that smokers' fingers or lips block some of the tiny holes in cigarettes that filter out smoke. This means that smokers pull more smoke into their lungs than would be registered on a smoking machine.

According to the DPH study, nicotine levels rose in 92 of 116 cigarette brands. In 12 brands nicotine fell, and in 12 it remained constant.

The DPH study came little more than a week after a federal judge ruled that the industry had consistently deceived the public about the danger of its products. Judge Gladys Kessler also confirmed that the companies had manipulated nicotine levels, despite their denials. But hemmed in by an earlier ruling, Kessler concluded she could not order the industry to hand over billions in profits and instead prohibited it from using terms like ``low tar" or ``ultra light."

Kessler's ruling and the DPH study make it more urgent than ever that Congress place tobacco under the FDA's authority. A 2004 bill sponsored by Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Republican Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio would have given the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco but not ban it outright. The Senate backed the measure, but the leadership of the House of Representatives would not even allow it to be considered in that chamber. The DPH data make clear that, without an agency like the FDA riding herd on it, the industry will do anything it can to keep smokers hooked. Congress should put Americans' lives before this powerful lobby and order the FDA to regulate tobacco.

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