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Bill's backers think FDA could engineer a safer cigarette

Law would have agency regulate tobacco products

WASHINGTON -- The federal agency charged with keeping food and drugs from harming people may soon be asked to take a consumer product that kills more than 400,000 people a year and make it safer.

The product is the cigarette -- generally acknowledged as anything but safe. Smoking accounts for nearly 1 in 5 deaths in the United States.

That toll can be reduced, tobacco foes say, and they point to a bill that is expected to pass a Senate committee tomorrow as the tool to make it happen.

The legislation would give the Food and Drug Administration the same authority over cigarettes and other tobacco products that the regulatory agency has over countless other consumer products. It's not something the agency necessarily wants, according to past comments by Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, FDA commissioner.

The bill would allow the FDA to regulate the levels of tar, nicotine, and other harmful components of tobacco products. Cigarette smoke contains some 4,000 chemicals, more than 40 of which are known to cause cancer.

"Are we going to cut cancer in half with FDA control? No. Can we do with cigarettes things that are important in regulating a product to minimize its toxicity? Yes, I think we can," said Dr. David Burns of the University of California, San Diego, scientific editor of several surgeon general reports on tobacco.

New tobacco 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 to control how tobacco products are made, and would force the disclosure of their ingredients, including compounds and additives, and in what quantities. That, supporters say , should help expose and ultimately limit the ways cigarettes are engineered to the detriment of the public's health.

"If the FDA only prevented tobacco companies from manipulating their products to make it easier to start and harder to quit, it will make a major contribution to reducing the number of people who die," said Matthew Myers, president of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, a supporter of the legislation, which has faltered in previous Congresses.

No one for or against the Senate bill, mirrored by matching legislation in the House, believes it could result in a safe cigarette. There is consensus that there is no such thing. But some foes of the bill maintain it could create that impression.

"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," said Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health .

Advocates say the bill would at a minimum give the FDA the authority to go where the scientific evidence leads, and then make decisions based on the science.

"There is a broad range of actions that the FDA potentially could take, some of which we understand now and some we can only see dimly," Burns said. "To say that there's nothing we can do is nihilistic in thinking and inconsistent with science."

The bill also would keep tobacco companies from tinkering with their products in ways that would make them any more dangerous, supporters add.

"The tobacco industry would not be allowed to manipulate the ingredients -- like increase nicotine or decrease nicotine or whatever they do -- without disclosing it. 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," said M. Cass Wheeler, chief executive officer of the American Heart Association.

When asked for some likely targets that regulators could tackle, chemist David Ashley of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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.

"This bill wisely doesn't try to predict what a cigarette will look like once FDA begins to take action. Instead, it says to the scientists at the FDA, 'You have the power to require changes in tobacco products in whatever ways you believe,' " Myers said.