The US tobacco industry is under more sustained attack now than at any time in the past. James Johnston, the chief executive of RJR Tobacco Company, said cigarette smokers were facing 'backdoor prohibition' through cumulative restrictions. Another industry leader said yesterday that he was 'appalled' by the way he and other executives were being treated.
Grilled by the Health and Environment subcommittee, tobacco executives tried with some desperation to fend off the demand by the Food and Drug Administration to regulate their industry. When they objected to a demand by the committee for details of the companies' testing on animals, they were told that if they did not comply the information would be subpoenaed.
Henry Waxman, chairman of the subcommittee and the main congressional critic of the tobacco companies, released a secret 1981 report on the tobacco industry this week which appeared to contradict its claim that it did not tamper with nicotine levels. According to the report, 'current research is directed towards increasing the nicotine levels while maintaining or marginally reducing the 'tar' '.
Denying Mr Waxman's allegations, Andrew Tisch, the chief executive of Lorillard Tobacco, said his company 'does not take any steps to assure a minimal level of nicotine in our products'. The industry maintains that nicotine is simply a natural and non-addictive constituent of tobacco. A danger for companies that manufacture cigarettes is that courts may for the first time hold them legally liable for causing cancer or other illnesses among smokers.
The industry is having to fight on a host of different fronts. Although 46 million Americans still smoke, the habit is regarded with decreasing public tolerance after studies showing that smoke from other people's cigarettes kills 3,000 people annually. Under pressure from Congress, the six largest companies decided this week to release a list of some 700 additives they place in cigarettes. They deny that any of them has a toxic effect.
The pressure on tobacco companies is a tribute to their past success in avoiding regulation. They have succeeded in keeping cigarette taxes well below the level of Western Europe or Canada. A bill introduced by the Oklahoma Democrat Mike Synar would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the power to control how the industry makes, advertises and sells its products. David Kessler, the head of the FDA, last month said he should regulate tobacco because it contains an addictive drug.
Going by yesterday's performance before Congress, the tobacco companies will have serious difficulty turning back the tide of public disapproval. 'We do not do anything to hook smokers or keep them hooked,' said Mr Johnston of R J Reynolds. 'We no more manipulate nicotine in cigarettes than coffee makers manipulate caffeine.' However, a recent poll shows that 68 per cent of Americans think cigarettes should be regulated like any other drug.
The offensive against cigarettes is not being pushed by the White House, but an increased cigarette tax of at least 75 cents (51p) a pack would be a popular way of paying for part of Mr Clinton's health care plans. Government officials, including the surgeon general, have said nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine - something repeatedly denied by the tobacco executives.
The Tobacco Institute, the industry's political lobby in Washington, was once widely feared in Congress but has lost something of its clout. This is partly because it employs fewer people than it used to. Even in North Carolina, which produces 52 per cent of US tobacco, there are only 13,000 tobacco farmers and 18,600 people involved in the manufacturing end of the industry. Fewer employees means fewer voters dependent on tobacco. The industry still has large funds with which to chip away at congressional support for regulation and increased taxes. But Mr Waxman said the hearings yesterday marked 'a new relationship between Congress and the tobacco companies'.Reuse content