US tobacco firms fight nicotine 'drug' label

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The beleaguered US tobacco industry suffered a new and double-edged blow yesterday: an unprecedentedly damning accusation of chicanery and deception from the country's largest doctors' association, and an historic ruling by a government agency that nicotine was a drug and that tobacco products should be regulated accordingly.

Of the two setbacks, the charges from the American Medical Association, in a first- ever signed editorial from the AMA's board that cigarette companies engaged in a systematic, three-decade cover-up of the addictive and cancer-causing risks of smoking, will draw the largest headlines - not least because of their potential impact on the multi-billion dollar liability cases against the industry in several states.

But in the longer run the conclusion by the watchdog Food and Drug Administration that nicotine is a dangerous drug which should be regulated could be even more damaging.

According to the New York Times, which first reported the story, the FDA has decided not to announce its decision, nor to impose new restrictions on tobacco as it is entitled to do, for fear of stirring up Republican opposition in Congress. Instead, it has passed on some relatively modest proposals to the White House. They include further curbs on cigarette advertising and an end to sales from vending machines, the easiest way for children to obtain cigarettes.

Relatively mild the proposals may be, but the FDA's decision is a milestone. By deeming nicotine for the first time to be a drug that should be regulated, the agency has opened the door to stricter curbs in the future - theoretically up to and including an outright ban.

Sensing the threat, the tobacco lobby, especially strong in increasingly Republican Southern states where the $45bn (pounds 28bn) a year industry is based, has reacted with predictable outrage, claiming the FDA had given a classic example of government meddling in a perfectly legal industry.