Regulating Murder

death-cigarettesDespite a long-running war on crime and billions of dollars spent each year on the criminal justice system, murders keep on happening. Instead of trying to end all homicides, perhaps the solution is to give up on abolition and simply regulate the practice: discourage the murder of children, put strong warning labels on guns, impose a tax on killers.

Ridiculous? Yes, but this is roughly what the federal government has just done with the tobacco industry, which legally ends far more lives each year than all the non-corporate murderers in the country combined.

The legislation just signed into law by President Obama — the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act — is billed as an aggressive move to bring the coffin nail industry under federal control for the first time. It starts off with what amounts to a 49-point indictment of tobacco products as a public health menace. Use of these products is called “inherently dangerous,” “addictive” and a “pediatric disease.” The tobacco industry, it is noted, still spends vast sums “to attract new users, retain current users, increase current consumption, and generate favorable long-term attitudes toward smoking and tobacco use.”

All of this is certainly true, but it seems odd to follow this denunciation with legislative language that imposes restrictions on the noxious industry but does not seek to put it out of business. In fact, the law can be seen as conferring some degree of legitimacy on tobacco producers. For example, the industry is given a statutory role in the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, which has to be consulted before any new industry regulations are promulgated. Fortunately, the three seats on the committee given to tobacco manufacturers and growers are non-voting positions, but it is still unseemly — to put it mildly — to have representatives of such a notorious industry so involved in government oversight.

According to Corporate Accountability International, which has played a central role in promoting tobacco control policies: “Not only is the inclusion of the industry on this committee akin to letting the fox guard the henhouse, it runs counter to a treaty provision that obligates ratifying countries to safeguard their health policies against tobacco industry interference.”  Kathy Mulvey of CAI adds: “U.S. policymakers must now gird themselves for inevitable attempts by Big Tobacco to delay and thwart [the law].”

The ability of a notorious industry to go on influencing policy is reinforced by the fact that the law generally treats tobacco companies in a way that is not greatly different from other regulated corporations. The Food and Drug Administration is instructed to collect “user fees” from tobacco companies — as if they were pharmaceutical manufacturers seeking to get new drugs approved. Unless tobacco companies plan to “use” the FDA in some way, the fees should at least be called something different; perhaps reparations.

Another problem is that the law mentions that any restrictions on tobacco industry advertising and promotion must be consistent with the First Amendment. You can be sure that the industry will be screaming loudly that the law violates its free speech rights (granted by misguided court rulings). This is another drawback to regulation rather than criminalization.

While some players in the tobacco industry have ardently opposed federal regulation throughout the 15-year campaign to bring it about, some shrewd parties eventually realized that government intervention was inevitable and jumped on the bandwagon. Tobacco giant Philip Morris (now part of Altria) took this tack back in 2000, reaping years of improved p.r. and now a law that allows it and its competitors to continue selling their deadly wares with restrictions that are far from fatal to their profits. As much as corporations like to complain about regulation, sometimes it is their salvation.

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