Tobacco regulation

On Thursday the Senate sent to the White House and President Barack Obama signed a bill that will allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products for the first time.

Those who fight to stop Americans from using tobacco cheered this next step toward tobacco prohibition. The change means flavored cigarettes will be banned, they asserted; advertising aimed at children will also be barred; dastardly cigarette manufacturers will no longer be able to claim that some cigarettes are safer because they have "low" levels of tar and nicotine.

In fact, although some pipe and chewing tobacco products and even small cigars are fruit-flavored, heading down to the local convenience store and attempting to buy a pack of chocolate- or strawberry-flavored cigarettes isn't likely to get you very far. The most common flavoring agent in tobacco is menthol, and -- in part to gain tacit approval for this regulatory scheme from tobacco and lobbying giant Philip Morris, which controls most of the major menthol brands -- menthol will be exempt from any early ban on flavoring agents.

As for those "ads targeted at children," you may search America's magazines and billboards in vain for any ads offering "Buy one pack and get one free if you're under 16."

Tobacco use is harmful. Smokers would be well-advised to quit. Young people should be discouraged from starting.

But why did manufacturers ever start advertising "lower tar and nicotine," in the first place? The government required them to measure and report tar and nicotine content, implying that higher concentrations were more harmful. Manufacturers advertised "low tar and nicotine" to turn this government-mandated lemon into lemonade.

Meantime, in a masterpiece of understatement by a tobacco giant whose grip on the market will only be solidified by the bill in question, the Altria Group, owner of Philip Morris, issued a statement praising the bill but saying it's imperfect, especially when it comes to ad restrictions.

"We have expressed First Amendment reservations about certain provisions, including those that could restrict a manufacturer's ability to communicate truthful information," Altria wrote.

Government regulators have become infamous for saying, "Sure, what you want to say may be true, but it also might lead consumers to shift their behaviors in ways we don't like, so forget it."

This is the standard that will now apply to tobacco processors. It's an interesting precedent. Do you suppose it could turn out to be a dangerous one?