Thursday, April 2, 2009

Doin' it FDA style

This week the House Energy and Commerce Committee cleared a bill giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products. That's good, right? Actually, not so much.

First, there are deep and troubling issues with the FDA and their sort of "regulation." For instance, in this regulatory project, two representatives from the tobacco industry will most likely sit on the advisory board. That's right - the industry itself will be involved with the regulatory process. How can that possible work, you ask? The thing is, this is pretty standard for our regulatory agencies. Agencies like the FDA and the USDA are saturated with former and sometimes current employee of the industries they're supposed to regulate. It's quite common for a person to retire from the industry and immediately take a job regulating it. The conflict here is that this person's sympathies will tend to lie with the industry, and their financial interests most certainly will.

In fact, transitioning back and forth between the industries and the agencies that are supposed to regulate them is so common that critics refer to this as the revolving door. When I was in grad school I TAd for a professor who was a leading expert on regulatory law. His theory was that regulatory agencies have a life span of roughly 20 years before the saturation by industry representatives reaches critical mass. When this happens, the only way to counter it seems to be to dissolve the agency and start over from scratch. Like that's going to happen anytime soon.

Second, to understand what's going on with this bill, all we have to do is follow the money. Who backed this bill, and in large part, wrote it? The tobacco industry. I'm not shitting you here. Several sources have already noted this. According to Howard Wolinsky and Alan Blum at Huffington Post :

...the industry will be footing the bill for the alleged regulation of its own products. This is window-dressing masquerading as regulation. The foxes will be guarding the henhouse.

...But placing the nation's most lethal consumer product -- cigarettes -- under the control of the FDA would be unwise. And asking a food and drug bureau to promulgate "product safety standards" for cigarettes is an oxymoron that will perpetuate the myth, long fostered by the tobacco industry, that this inherently harmful product can be made safer.

...The ardent support of this bill by Philip Morris, with fully 50 percent of the nation's cigarette market, should prompt skepticism about the measure and its purported public health benefits.

So why were companies like Philip Morris so active in pushing for this legislation?

Prof. Michael Siegel of Boston University School of Public Health, a prolific blogger on tobacco policy and critic of policy that's more symbol than substance, bemoans "the many loopholes in the legislation that were clearly inserted to protect Philip Morris and retain its support for the bill, rather than to protect the public's health."
This continues the tobacco industry's tradition of doing seemingly surprising things that serve its economic interests.
All of this evidence of the tobacco industry's support for the bill raises the question of what exactly they stand to gain from their cooperation in the "regulation" of their industry. The limiting of FDA regulatory authority written into the bill by big tobacco results in a remarkably effective protection of their market share. Since this bill largely limits regulation to new tobacco products, companies like Philip Morris, which already has a huge portion of the market share, will be shielded from much scrutiny and their market share will be protected. According to the NY Times:

Competitors say that the F.D.A. is unlikely to approve many new tobacco products. That, they say, combined with the legislation’s broader restrictions on tobacco advertising and marketing, would lock in Philip Morris’s market dominance.

“It would make it harder to let consumers know there are options available to them,” said Maura Payne, a spokeswoman for R. J. Reynolds, a part of Reynolds
and the second-largest tobacco seller and maker of Camel cigarettes.

In addition, even as Philip Morris has spent years lobbying for the legislation, it has also poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a research center in Richmond, Va., to develop new tobacco products it hopes can pass federal muster — in particular, smokeless products that can be chewed or sucked or inhaled and do not involve burning tobacco. Few other tobacco companies have the resources to place such bets on the regulatory future.

So this bill illustrates a couple of things about how our democracy works. First, the immense clout that corporations acquire through lobbying and campaign finance really does replace the the control of the people with the control of the business world. Rather than being representatives of the people, politicians are reduced to corporate lackeys in a corporatocracy. Second, this bill deomonstrates how our regulatory agencies serve as a smokescreen for this process and a placebo to create an artificial sense of safety for the American public. Trust me on this one. The FDA really doesn't have your health and well-being at heart when it acts to "regulate" the industries that fall under its control. Instead, it has basically become an extension of those industries.

For Further Reading:


  1. Lizzay4/04/2009

    I wonder if politicians are aware of the involvement of the industry or if they've been tricked by the wording of the bill too. I've heard that none of them actually read the legislation they're voting on.

  2. That's it. I'm gonna stop reading your blog cause your making me cynical like you!

    Actually, I'm lovin it.