FDA regulation changes tobacco industry

By Heather Sullivan - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Last week, the Food and Drug Administration proposed graphic new warning labels for cigarette boxes. The proposed pictures include rotting and diseased teeth and gums, and a cartoon of a mother blowing smoke in her baby's face. The government hopes they'll get people to quit smoking and prevent teens from starting. If approved, these images could appear on cigarette packs in September of 2012.

The FDA began regulating tobacco a little over a year ago. There have been big changes for big tobacco. New warning labels are one of many changes companies face. You'll notice you don't see words like light, mild, or low tar on cigarette boxes anymore. Marlboro Ultra Lights, for example, are now labeled Marlboro Silver Pack.

Warning labels have also changed, they're larger. Tobacco products must be kept behind the counter in stores now. And you don't see much advertising any more. Said Altria spokesman Bill Phelps, "When it comes to cigarette advertisements, no television, no radio, no bill boards, no merchandise with cigarette logos on it."

Unlike most tobacco companies, Richmond's Altria and Swedish Match both say they support regulation. Explained Phelps, "All tobacco manufacturers need to comply to a common set of high standards. We think that's good for consumers. And the legislation also provides for the evaluation of tobacco products that are potentially less harmful than conventional cigarettes."

Adds Gerry Roerty, Vice-President and General Counsel for Swedish Match, "I would say the jury is still out on what impact that is going to have upon us. I think we're finding that in certain stores, we're getting less placement and in other stores we're finding creative ways to find more placement. But it is very much a challenge."

Altria is guarded about its production process. The company provided our station its own manufacturing video because it wouldn't let our cameras in, citing proprietary reasons. But the FDA can call for the removal of any ingredients it considers harmful or change the way tobacco products are made.

Said Phelps, "The FDA does have the authority to reduce nicotine levels. It can't eliminate nicotine in cigarettes, so that is something it could consider in the future."

Roerty says of Swedish Match, "We're hopeful that the FDA will, in the area of good manufacturing practices, take a realistic view of how the product was made."

Cigarette sales have declined industry wide for 20 years. If regulation should hurt sales further, these companies have prepared. Swedish Match got out of the cigarette business years ago, focusing instead on cigars and smokeless tobacco products. Altria has diversified, buying Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and smokeless tobacco companies. Said Phelps, "We acquired a company called John Middleton, which sells cigars based in Pennsylvania, and acquired a company that sells smokeless tobacco products, which is U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Products."

Both companies say they plan to continue to actively participate with the FDA as it shapes future regulation.

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