Cigarette smoking is bad for your health. But so are automobiles, candy bars, fast food, martinis, television, and even sunshine. Since the days of James V and I, we have heard about the dangers of tobacco. So why all the fuss surrounding the cigarette industry this spring?
Even more absurd than Representative Henry A. Waxman’s House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, which felt the need to hold hearings to determine whether nicotine should be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as an addictive drug, was National Public Radio, which fueled the hysteria with an interminable string of special reports on both the industry and the campaign against it. While Representative Waxman was bold in asserting that tobacco companies have altered nicotine levels in cigarettes to hook smokers, NPR was downright belligerent in reporting that 13 of the additives to cigarettes have not received federal approval and are therefore hazardous.
This last allegation, which prompted the six largest tobacco companies to release publicly a list of 599 ingredients found in various combinations in their brands of cigarettes, triggered one of the worst battles in the antismoking war so far. Having already denounced the evils of tar and nicotine, critics of the industry could now talk about the potential dangers of inhaling additives like methyl salicylate (which causes birth defects in hamsters), caramel color (which produces catechol, a co-carcinogen, when heated), and licorice root (a flavorant and moistener containing glycyrrhizic acid, which produces carcinogens when burned). An advertisement run in major newspapers by Philip Morris on the day before the subcommittee hearings assured consumers that all of the additives on the list are common foods or have been approved by federal agencies, but skeptics (rightly) argued that this does not necessarily make them safe. Angelica root extract was on the list, for example, and has been approved by the FDA for use in chewing gum, baked goods, and beverages, but it has also caused cancer in laboratory animals.
As a result of the publication of the list (to which the Department of Health and Human Services has had access since 1984), both the government and the media have professed indignation at cigarette companies for misleading and manipulating the American consumer. Yet the above example demonstrates that in blackballing this one industry they have missed the real scandal: potentially dangerous additives like angelica root are common in processed food products, which are ingested even by nonsmokers on a daily basis. Moreover, few people in positions of power have voiced concern over chemically-altered ingredients in food. While all branches of the federal government have become involved in the battle with the tobacco industry, there were no congressional hearings or Surgeon General reports when court cases around the country revealed the “clandestine production and sale of adulterated fruit juice” to be a “widespread and highly profitable practice . . . that is costing American consumers an estimated $1.2 billion a year and exposing them to undisclosed and unapproved chemicals” (as the New York Times reported last October). And the artificial sweetener aspartame, which some scientists believe was released onto the American market without adequate testing, continues to receive government approval, despite the fact that it accounts for 80 percent of all complaints to the FDA’s Adverse Reaction Monitoring System.
In short, Representative Waxman is hypocritical in cracking down on tobacco companies for practices that the government overlooks—or even approves—in manufacturers of other consumable products. When the chairman of the House’s health subcommittee argues that these companies should be held to the “same strict standards” as makers of aspirin and soda, he is ignoring the fact that Tylenol and Coca-Cola are no less guilty of manipulating consumers in their own way than Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Americans are addicted to junk—to salt, sugar, caffeine, texturizers, moisteners, and flavorants—and junk is what most of their manufacturers happily provide to them.
Waxman accuses tobacco company executives of “lacking corporate responsibility,” but the publication by these executives of a list of ingredients that are FDA-approved raises questions about the corporate responsibility of the federal agency whose duty it is to protect the health of consumers. One other recent news item shows that the FDA is not above the manipulation of consumers it so loudly condemns in other organizations. According to the New York Times on April 18, the FDA may have collaborated with the manufacturer of a genetically engineered bovine growth hormone in clearing the drug for sale. Three congressmen have asked the General Accounting Office to investigate three top-level FDA officials who were paid by Monsanto, the manufacturer of the new drug, for legal work or scientific studies before joining the government; all three subsequently helped to develop the FDA’s formal opinion that the drug is safe, that it should be approved, and that labeling dairy products from herds that have been treated with it is unnecessary. Cigarette-smoking is a vice engaged in willfully by teenagers and adults: milk, however, is a supposedly nutritious substance given by parents to small children. If the federal government wants to get serious about protecting consumers from corporate irresponsibility, it can start by defending young Americans from threats of its own creation.