Guest Observer: Memo to Leaders: Stepping in on Tobacco Is a Political Winner
by Donna Shalala
Roll Call, Thursday, 4/6/00
TO: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.)
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.)
Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.)
RE: Not Letting Your Futures Go Up In Smoke
Since I'm usually not in the business of giving political advice,
I decided I'd better write this memo under deep cover. As you
know, the Supreme Court recently ruled that the Food & Drug
Administration does not have the authority to regulate tobacco.
But all nine justices did acknowledge what most people have
known for years, "that tobacco use, particularly among children
and adolescents, poses perhaps the single most significant
threat to public health in the United States."
So this is the perfect chance for Congress to step into the
breach and rescue thousands of children from premature
death. In anybody's book, that is a political winner.
But remember, you didn't hear it from me.
Why should Congress pick up the flag that the Supreme Court
has forced the FDA to leave on the battlefield? To begin with,
there is overwhelming public support for the kind of
administrative oversight called for in the FDA rule.
In a 1998 poll, 91 percent of Americans said the FDA should
be able to force disclosure of tobacco ingredients, and 89
percent said the FDA should be able to regulate the amount
of these harmful ingredients.
Secondly, because of the court's ruling, and notwithstanding
the tobacco settlement with the states, we're in danger of
returning to the bad old days of advertising aimed at children,
vending machine sales and no enforcement power to police
sales to minors.
So Congress can and should move quickly to enact
legislation giving FDA the authority it needs to protect our
children. And there's no need to reinvent the wheel. As you
know, 57 Senators - both Republicans and Democrats -
supported the bipartisan McCain-Frist bill that would stop
the endless progression of kids getting hooked on tobacco
products - and dying early from tobacco use. All you have
to do is bring it up for a vote again this year.
Why should the Congressional leadership support such a
move? Simple. Every day, 3,000 young people become
regular smokers and 1,000 will die from their addiction.
More than 80 percent of adult smokers started smoking
before they were 18.
Lung cancer now kills more women than breast cancer,
and heart disease is the No. 1 killer among both women
and men. Overall, more than 400,000 Americans die
every year from tobacco-related illnesses.
These are not the kinds of numbers that should make you
shy away from tackling an important issue. There are far
more people who don't smoke than do. And then there
are all the soccer moms. Their children are being exposed
to all kinds of deadly risks. Parents don't want excuses.
They want action - and they're going to vote for leaders
who offer that action.
Don't take my word for it. Ask the millions of independents
that are up for grabs this election. You can address their
concerns about special interests quickly and easily by
authorizing the FDA to regulate the content of cigarettes,
requiring better warning labels and imposing financial
penalties for failing to reduce teen smoking.
There is plenty of precedent for Congress to act. In 1965,
Congress required warnings on every pack of cigarettes
sold in the United States. Every Republican in the Senate
that voted supported the law. In 1969, Congress banned
cigarette ads from television and radio, again with strong
In 1983, Congress - with the Senate in Republican hands -
required the secretary of Health and Human Services to
report every three years on the addictive property of tobacco.
One year later, Congress required tougher warning labels.
Two years after that - with Republicans still in control of the
Senate - Congress required warning labels for smokeless
tobacco. In giving the FDA broad authority to regulate
tobacco, Congress will be following a well-established
and bipartisan tradition.
If Congress passes FDA regulation this spring, you can go
into the convention season - and the fall election - making
a credible argument that you have acted to save the lives
of America's future: children.
Tobacco doesn't have to be a partisan issue. But like I said:
You didn't hear it from me.
Donna Shalala, a.k.a. Anonymous, is the Secretary of
Health and Human Services.