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Regulating Tobacco

Historic legislation gives FDA authority to limit, remove harmful chemicals in products

by Britt E. Erickson
June 22, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 25

Credit: Shutterstock
Tobacco companies will soon have to tell FDA what's in their cigarettes.
Credit: Shutterstock
Tobacco companies will soon have to tell FDA what's in their cigarettes.

Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a landmark bill last week that for the first time will give the Food & Drug Administration authority to restrict or eliminate toxic chemicals in tobacco products. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill, the Family Smoking Prevention & Tobacco Control Act (H.R. 1256), into law soon.

The bill will give FDA the power to require tobacco companies to disclose their ingredients and make changes to their products if the agency deems any of the contents harmful. FDA could demand that industry reduce the level of nicotine or other chemicals such as pesticides, heavy metals, formaldehyde, benzene, and radioactive elements in tobacco products. The bill will also ban candy- or fruit-flavored cigarettes and require product claims to be backed up by science. And it will prohibit the words "light," "low-tar," and "mild" in the marketing of tobacco products.

The legislation has wide support from more than 1,000 public health, medical, and community groups. "The lack of regulation has allowed tobacco companies to market their deadly and addictive products to children, deceive consumers about the harm their products cause, and manipulate their products in ways that make them even more harmful and addictive," says Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "This legislation at long last will stop these harmful practices."

"I am proud to be part of this historic moment, when Congress finally stands up to Big Tobacco and stands up for the health of all Americans," Henry A. Waxman (D.-Calif.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, said in a statement. Waxman was one of the leading sponsors of the bill and has been working for more than a decade to give FDA authority to regulate tobacco.

"It is the most significant new program at FDA in almost a half-century and will be a significant challenge to implement," notes William K. Hubbard, former senior associate commissioner of FDA, who recently returned to the agency for a short stint to assist the commissioner. "But fortunately, it is well funded with industry user fees."

Although the new tobacco program will be funded entirely through those industry-paid fees, critics of the bill are concerned that it will take away resources from an already overburdened FDA. "FDA becomes drugs, tobacco, and what little time they have left, food safety. It underscores our call for there to be a separate food agency," Jaydee Hanson, policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, tells C&EN.

Hanson supports regulating tobacco, but not by the same agency that regulates food. He also warns that consumers aren't likely to learn what is in their favorite cigarettes anytime soon. "If FDA treats tobacco as they do other drugs, there is a lot of information that consumers won't have."



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