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Anti-tobacco efforts deserve new focus in new year

In 2009, President Obama signed the Tobacco Control Act, which gave the Food and Drug Administration authority over tobacco products. It was a signal moment in the fight against smoking.

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the country, racking up 400,000 premature deaths in America every year and holding 40 million Americans in the grip of addiction.

After decades of education campaigns, cessation programs and increasing taxes, the U.S. smoking rate is stuck at about a fifth of the adult population.

And after a string of headline-worthy achievements, the FDA’s tobacco program has been a little quiet lately.

The act prodded the safety agency to do a few things immediately, such as finalizing a rule on marketing and promotion to children.

The FDA barred the sale of fruit-, candy- or clove-flavored cigarettes. It began studying the prevalence and effects of menthol cigarettes, another flavoring that encourages children to start lighting up.

It created the Center for Tobacco Products, under which it would continue to assert its new authority.

But, the American Lung Association says in a new report, the FDA’s anti-tobacco work in 2012 didn’t proceed at the heady pace of the previous two years, perhaps because of a broader regulatory hiatus during last year’s presidential election.

So far, the agency has asserted authority over only cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, not products such as cigars, pipe tobacco or e-cigarettes.

Until it claims broader jurisdiction, it can’t compel the examination of ingredients and assess their relative lethality, let alone regulate more aggressively.

Flavored cigarettes have been banned, but tobacco companies still flavor cigars to taste like grape or cola, and the vaporous chemical mixture inhaled from e-cigarettes now comes in flavors such as “cherry limeade” and “Atomic Fireball.” The lung association sees upticks in the use of non-cigarette tobacco products and worries that the industry will hook children with new, less-regulated products.

Lawrence Deyton, the FDA’s chief tobacco regulator, says the agency has been busy enforcing all the rules it enacted in its first years, building a regulatory body from scratch and informing tobacco companies what it will expect of them. To take steps such as dialing back the amount of nicotine in tobacco products, the agency must undertake exhaustive scientific research demonstrating that its decisions are not “arbitrary and capricious.” Deyton says the public can expect more progress in 2013.

Meanwhile, the FDA isn’t the only body that needs to act. Congress should raise national tobacco taxes, especially for products that currently enjoy preferential tax treatment relative to cigarettes, such as large cigars and pipe tobacco.

States, too, can raise excises and devote more of the money to anti-tobacco programs.

These sorts of policies have saved many lives over decades of effort, and there’s reason to think that old tools can still help.