FDA tests its power, while there’s time

The Food and Drug Administration banned sales of Camel Crush Bold and three other cigarette brands from Reynolds American Inc.
The Food and Drug Administration banned sales of Camel Crush Bold and three other cigarette brands from Reynolds American Inc. The Associated Press

Using power granted in 2009 when Democrats controlled Congress, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday announced it was banning the sale of four brands of cigarettes marketed by tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds. FDA officials said the brands, introduced in recent years, raised concerns for public health.

In particular, gimmicky menthol capsules embedded in filters made them potentially more appealing to young people. Smokers of one of the newly banned brands, Camel Crush Bold, can squeeze the filter to crush a capsule and release menthol vapor as they inhale the toxic tobacco smoke.

Other banned brands were Pall Mall Deep Set Recessed Filter, Pall Mall Deep Set Recessed Filter Menthol and Vantage Tech 13. Some had sweeteners, another lure for young smokers. The FDA found the new brands were not substantially equivalent to existing products. Retailers have a month to remove them from shelves. Reynolds said Tuesday it is examining its options.

Last month, the FDA issued letters warning the North Carolina parent company, Reynolds American Inc., about using the terms “natural” and “additive-free” on packaging for its American Spirit, Winston and Nat Sherman brands. Such designations might suggest to consumers that the cigarettes were less harmful than other brands. Smoking claims more than 400,000 lives annually.

This week’s decision marked a significant advance in enforcing the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009, when Democrats held both houses of Congress. It’s also the sort of action that, while not at the top of most voters’ minds, clearly will be in play in the elections in 2016.

While not at the top of most voters’ minds, the FDA action clearly is the sort that will be in play in the 2016 congressional and presidential elections.

Matthew L. Myers, president of Tobacco Free Kids in Washington, noted in an interview with a Sacramento Bee editorial board member that the FDA commissioner under Republican President George W. Bush expressed doubts about the wisdom of imposing FDA regulations on tobacco. If Republicans win the White House in 2016 and maintain control of Congress, Myers predicted, “the day when aggressive action is taken … would be gone.”

We agree. The tobacco industry has spent $31 million lobbying Congress since 2014, and another $4 million to influence federal elections in 2014, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Tobacco companies contribute far more money to Republicans than Democrats for a reason. Like any business, they expect a return on their investment.

The FDA’s action was aggressive and far-reaching. It’s also the sort that might not happen much if Republicans sweep the elections next year.