Here is a letter I e-mailed today to the Food and Drug Administration. Tomorrow is the deadline to comment on the FDA’s new powers to regulate tobacco products, created by a bill Barack Obama signed earlier this year. This is an exciting bill that has a lot of potential to make some real headway toward reducing smoking and use of tobacco products.
And letters can work! A couple of years ago, I was outraged to find a ad for Natural American Spirit (NOT an Indian cigarette brand, BTW. Actually, RJ Reynolds.) cigarettes in my daughter’s Discovery Magazine. I wrote an angry letter to the magazine, telling them this is a magazine read by kids and stocked by many schools and they wrote back apologizing, informing me they had banned all cigarette advertising and I got a free year’s subscription for my wrath.
As an aside. These are numbers that I find shockingly few people are aware of. About 15,000 people every year die in the U.S. from using illegal drugs. About 30,000 die every year from abusing prescription drugs. About 100,000 people every year die from alcohol (that includes both liver disease and DUI fatalities). More than 400,000 people every year die from tobacco. That’s nearly triple all the people who die from alcohol, illegal drugs and prescription drugs combined.
That 400,000 number may be slightly exaggerated. It likely includes people who smoked for 20 or 30 years, quit smoking, then died at the age of 90 from a stroke. But, this is not an exaggeration: 130,000 smokers die every year just from lung cancer, over 100,000 die every year from COPD (emphysema and chronic pneumonia). That’s nearly a quarter million smoking Americans every year dying just from lung disease.
Anyway, it’s an issue that is very near and dear to my heart. This is my letter to the FDA:
I am writing to comment on the impending FDA regulations on tobacco products.
Thank you for taking up this major endeavor. I hope the FDA makes a real difference in this matter that will genuinely save some lives.
Let me tell you my background. I lost my father, a four-pack-a-day smoker, to lung cancer when he was 49. He was diagnosed with emphysema two years before his death, but continued to smoke. He literally smoked up until the day he died. I was 16 when he died. My mother, a two-pack-a-day smoker, continued to smoke after his death, lying to people that he died of Hodgkin’s Disease. She has suffered cervical cancer, a heart attack and is now seriously ill with COPD. She has been hospitalized multiple times with bronchitis and pneumonia. She must carry a respirator with her at all times. She refuses to go to movies or get on an airplane, because that would mean going more than an hour without a cigarette. She literally starts to have panic attacks if she has to go more than an hour without a cigarette. She is an addict. It is every bit as painful to watch as a heroin addict.
I grew up with chronic bronchitis and asthma, for at least six to eight weeks every year for the first 25 years of my life. I had pneumonia twice in my 20s. I also had chronic ear infections as a child. Multiple surgeries were done, removing my tonsils, adenoids, putting tubes in my ears, all to no avail. I have now lost perhaps 50 percent of my hearing in one ear because of the damage done. These conditions were caused, in my opinion and the opinion of at least two of my doctors, to daily exposure to up to six packs a day of secondhand smoke when I was a child. Fortunately, thanks to treatment and proper diagnosis, the bronchitis has cleared up and the asthma is no longer a major factor in my life.
I write with strong feelings about tobacco and the need to regulate it. Genuinely regulate it. Regulations with teeth and with purpose. My personal motivation is not vengeance for what happened to my family, but I want to prevent it from happening to others. The best way to do that is through education and keeping kids from starting up smoking or chewing. They can’t get addicted to nicotine if they don’t start to begin with.
I personally don’t think it would be effective to ban tobacco products. That would only serve to turn 45 million nicotine addicts into criminals; and would bring organized crime into trafficking tobacco. But, here’s what I would like to see – at minimum:
1) I personally would like to see all cigarette advertising banned. This includes billboards, magazine ads and displays in stores. I know the FDA is considering a proposal to allow advertising with only text. That would be acceptable by me only if advertising were allowed only in adult magazines such as Hustler or Penthouse. Tobacco companies spend a lot of money advertising in magazines directed at young people, in particular young women, in magazines such as Vogue and InStyle. Vogue and InStyle are primarily read by young women and teens, and the tobacco industry is well aware of this. A “text only” rule would not suffice to keep children from being exposed to cigarette advertising.
I particularly like the no “power wall” rules in Canada and Great Britain. While traveling in Canada, I found it refreshing that you didn’t see an entire wall of tobacco product advertising behind the counter in every mini-mart.
I know cigarette advertising has been banned on television and restrictions have been placed on liquor advertising in magazines and newspapers by other agencies, so I do believe it has been shown the federal government has the power to impose such restrictions.
As I’m sure the FDA likely knows, there has been a discouraging “flatlining” in the drop in the national smoking rate. It is stubbornly stuck at 20 percent, and there has not been the drop-off in teen smoking as was anticipating during the 1998 tobacco master settlement agreement. I believe this is because kids are still exposed to tobacco advertising from a variety of courses. Since 1998, tobacco companies may have retired Joe Camel, but they are spending more than ever on advertising, looking for new, young customers. The best weapon to stop the stubborn persistence of teen smoking to to stop the advertising.
2) I thank the FDA for banning candy-flavored cigarettes, but I would also like to see this rule applied to cigars and to chewing tobacco.
3) I would like to see more graphic warnings on tobacco products, similar to what Canada and European countries have done. I have no problem with photos of diseased lungs or cancer-ridden mouths being required to be placed on packaging.
4) I would like to see studies done on the effectiveness of lowering nicotine content in cigarettes. I know there is some controversy over this, because some would argue that lowering nicotine levels would only encourage smokers to smoke more to get the same levels of nicotine. Still, lower levels of nicotine would also make it more difficult for young smokers to become addicted in the first place.
5) I would like to see studies done on whether it is feasible to lower the levels of arsenic, strychnine, benzene, formaldehyde, polonium-210 and thousands of other poisonous substances in tobacco products. If it is feasible, then the industry should be required to remove or lower the presence of these substances.
6) I do not know if the FDA has this authority, but I would like to see the agency’s attorneys look into this. I would like to see a nationwide indoor smoking ban, in restaurants and bars both. Not only because it would protect the public and hospitality workers, but because it also helps change the “conventional wisdom” that smoking in public is cool and hip. Call it social engineering, but having to go outside to smoke is a genuine deterrent.