Sometimes it takes time for governmental institutions to catch up with conventional wisdom. In the case of deadly tobacco, for example, it has taken the U.S. government 225 years to get up to speed.
In a landmark move last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would put the tobacco industry under the umbrella of federal health officials for the first time. Now it will be up to the U.S. Senate and President Bush to decide if Big Tobacco should be seen as a public health issue.
In the minds of Americans, however, that issue was decided decades ago. Even kids in the 1960s knew enough to call cigarettes "cancer sticks" and "coffin nails."
The foot-dragging to regulate tobacco has gone on for centuries. And a lot of ironies have been stirred up in that time. The notion of the government subsidizing tobacco crops while, at the same time, sending the surgeon general onto the airwaves backed by government money to decry tobacco was both humorous and sad. And using tax revenue from tobacco sales to combat tobacco sales has always seemed wrong-headed. And how many Americans recently wailed about lead paint coming out of China, while a cigarette dangled from their lips?
But now, after a decade of pushing, shoving and coaxing, Sen. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has finally pried open the eyes of politicians in Washington. Tobacco is not an economic issue. It is not a freedom-of-choice issue. It is an issue of public health and safety. And it's time the government started taking tobacco half as seriously as it takes other deadly toxins.
The House bill would cinch up restrictions on tobacco advertising and impose federal penalties for selling tobacco to minors. But the real haymaker is the Food and Drug Administration would be in charge of regulating tobacco and that's a body blow to the industry. In future months we may see candy-flavored cigarettes taken from shelves, see menthol taken out of tobacco and see a reduction in the amount of nicotine.
Opponents claim it will clog the system and create havoc. But isn't that what tobacco has been doing to Americans since Jamestown?
Still, despite all the warnings, public service announcements and scientific evidence, one in five Americans continues to smoke. It's time to stub out the problems.
It's time for Americans to quit "smoking 'em if they've got 'em" not only for their own well-being but the well-being of everyone who comes in contact with them.