New laws tighten smoking regulations

By Ivana Susic

The Marlboro cowboy, Joe Camel and brightly colored cigarette ads are now a thing of the past. Soon free gifts with tobacco purchases and radio jingles will be too.

On March 18, the Food and Drug Administration approved new regulations to limit tobacco sales and marketing, aimed at reducing the targeting of youth.  Among the regulations that take effect in June, the FDA will create stricter penalties for those who sell cigarettes to minors. Passing out free samples of cigarettes and giving away items—such as lighters or hats—with the purchase of cigarettes will also be banned.

Tobacco companies will no longer be allowed to sponsor athletic events or teams, or sell cigarettes in packs of less than 20. Radio advertisements will no longer be allowed to use music or special effects for tobacco products.

According to the American Heart Association Web site, there are an estimated 46 million smokers in the United States. Of those, 80 percent started smoking before 18 (the legal age to smoke), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tobacco companies spend almost $35 million every day on advertising. Much of that marketing is directed at youth, according to

Paul G. Billings, vice president of national policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association, said the first attempt by the FDA to issue such regulations was implemented in 1996 and struck down in 2000.

The latest effort began last June when President Barack Obama signed a bill that gave the FDA power, for the first time, to regulate the sale of tobacco as well as tobacco manufacturing and marketing.

Under the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, tobacco companies  were required to  put larger health warnings on tobacco products.  Candy-flavored cigarettes were also banned and a 24-month deadline was imposed to take what the FDA labeled as misleading terms, such as “light” or “mild” off of cigarette packages.

“This is a very important step in reducing youth access to tobacco products, but this is clearly just one step,” Billings said. “There’s much more important work the FDA can and should do … to truly reduce the horrific toll that tobacco takes on the population.”

A “multi-pronged” approach is needed to address tobacco use, Billings said, and prevention is key. He said higher taxes should be levied on cigarettes to encourage people to quit smoking, and  the FDA should enforce more clean air laws nationwide. The clean air laws prohibit smoking indoors in public places, such as restaurants and bars.

Currently, 27 states enforce such laws, including Illinois. The Smoke-free Illinois Act went into effect Jan. 1, 2008.

“We still have 23 more [states] to go,” Billings said.

Billings said more services should be offered to help people succeed in quitting smoking, but emphasized the need to reduce the number of people who begin smoking in the first place. The FDA estimates 4,000 minors worldwide try their first cigarette each day, a thousand of whom will become regular smokers.

“The person who doesn’t start to smoke doesn’t have to quit smoking, and it’s very difficult to quit smoking,” Billings said. “The vast majority of people start smoking when they’re still children, so we need to be aggressive to intercede there.”

Jean-Rafael Heiz, a 27 year old who has smoked for 15 years, said he believes that while the regulations make sense, they are close to overstepping boundaries of personal freedom. In spite of health risks,  it comes down to personal choice, he said.

“I know smoking isn’t good for me,” Heiz said. “But it’s still a personal choice. No one ever told me to smoke, and I don’t want anyone to tell me I have to quit.”

Heiz said he agreed that steps should be taken to prevent advertising directed toward teens. He said while he did not feel influenced by marketing when he began smoking, he is sure many teenagers are.

“It’s not just seeing your friends smoking that makes you want to do it,” he said. “All the cool packaging and giveaways … can stick out in your memory.”

Most of the new regulations won’t have much impact on Heiz personally, but he said he is unhappy with the idea of raising the tax on cigarettes again. Still, he does not plan to quit.

Susan Hofer, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Revenue, said Illinois will not face much of an economic impact from the FDA regulations.  According to Hofer, removing cigarette vending machines will now be an issue, since Illinois only allows those in 21-and-over venues. Banning the sale of cigarettes in packs fewer than 20 will not be a problem either, she said..

“It’s already illegal [in Illinois] to sell cigarettes in packs less than 20, so that won’t affect us at all,” she said.

Banning sponsorship of athletic events by tobacco companies will not affect Illinois revenue, Hofer said.  The state does not receive the money made from the purchase of advertisements or  sponsorship.

“[The ban on sports events sponsorship] makes sense,” Heiz said. “People don’t think about smoking when watching sports, and that message shouldn’t be there.”

Billings said he is impressed by the FDA’s work with tobacco regulation and the new panel designed to handle tobacco marketing and sales.

The FDA started the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, the first scientific committee designed to handle tobacco regulations. The committee’s inaugural meeting was March 30-31.

“[The FDA] has a long way to go to address the enormity of the problem,” Billings said. “We finally have a strong scientific regulatory agency looking after public interest. We’ve been very pleased with the progress to date, but this is just the beginning.”