Sunday, May 10, 2009


Chances Bright for Legislation Seeking FDA Regulation of Tobacco

Lyndsey Layton/Washington Post

After 15 years of debate, tens of millions spent on lobbying and a roller-coaster legislative history, public health advocates say they believe Congress is finally ready to regulate tobacco -- and their opponents privately agree.

This week, a Senate committee will take up its version of a bill that passed the House by a comfortable margin last month. Supporters say they have more than the 60 votes needed to make the legislation filibuster-proof when it reaches the Senate floor sometime after Memorial Day.

The sponsors, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), with help from party leaders, have pushed the legislation onto a fast track. And President Obama, himself a smoker who has struggled to quit, has said he intends to sign the bill -- a reversal from President George W. Bush, who sought to kill it.

The legislation would give the Food and Drug Administration broad powers over the manufacturing and marketing of tobacco, a product used by 20 percent of Americans yet largely unregulated.

The very idea of tobacco regulation strikes some as nonsensical: Take a product that, if used as directed, will kill a third of those who use it and place it under the control of an agency charged with protecting public health. But advocates say FDA oversight is the best hope for reducing the 400,000 deaths each year from tobacco use.

"If this happens, and if the FDA uses its powers, it will be an enormous public health achievement," said Matthew L. Meyers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who has been pushing the legislation for 15 years.

For the first time, the $89 billion tobacco industry would have to disclose the ingredients in its products. Under the measure, the FDA could ban the most harmful of the estimated 6,000 chemicals used in cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products. And it could reduce the amount of nicotine, perhaps to a point where tobacco is no longer addictive and smokers who want to quit can break free more easily. The bill stops short of allowing the FDA to ban tobacco or reduce the amount of nicotine to zero.

The legislation would require tobacco companies to expand the size of warning labels from 30 percent to 50 percent of the package. The Senate bill mandates that graphic images of the health effects of tobacco consumption be included.

Advertising and promotion would be restricted. Tobacco manufacturers would be unable to use the terms "light," "mild" and "low" unless they can scientifically prove that the product so labeled is less harmful than standard tobacco. The bill would also create a tobacco center within the FDA funded by fees from the industry that are estimated to reach more than $500 million annually by 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The FDA first tried to regulate tobacco in the 1990s, but the industry battled it to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5 to 4 in 2000 that the agency had exceeded its statutory authority. It called on Congress to amend the law.

But during that legal battle, the political climate surrounding the issue shifted rapidly enough that by the time the Supreme Court rendered its decision, a curious thing had happened: Philip Morris, the maker of Marlboro and the largest tobacco company in the country, said it would accept some government oversight.

At the time, Philip Morris executives were charting a strategy to improve the company's image and regain the social acceptance it had lost in the 1990s as congressional hearings, court cases and suits by state attorneys general unearthed evidence that tobacco companies lied to the public about the addictive nature of nicotine. In late 2001, Philip Morris changed its name to the Altria Group; executives said they wanted to craft a new image untainted by cigarettes. They also embraced federal oversight as a way to convince the public that Altria was socially responsible, according to internal company documents.

William Phelps, a spokesman for Altria, said the company thinks FDA approval will help Altria market new products that are less dangerous to the health. Altria recently acquired U.S. Smokeless Tobacco; is testing "snus," a new line of "spit-free" smokeless tobacco products; and recently opened a $350 million research facility in Richmond to develop products that pose lower health risks.

Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the committee that will discuss the bill, said he wants to see some kind of legislation on tobacco but is opposed to the Kennedy measure. "It makes me leery when a tobacco company is backing this," he said. "Nothing changes in it without Philip Morris's approval."

Some public health professionals are also skeptical.

"I'm a little suspicious of anything that Philip Morris supports," said Richard Hurt, a doctor who directs the nicotine-dependence program at the Mayo Clinic. "I haven't known Philip Morris to do anything in the interest of public health."

Altria's competitors also oppose the bill. They say Altria is backing it because restrictions on marketing tend to freeze market shares, which would lock Philip Morris into the top spot.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), whose state is home to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Lorillard Tobacco, has threatened to filibuster the Kennedy bill. He and Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) have proposed an alternative bill that would promote "reduced risk" tobacco products instead of restricting cigarettes.

David J. Adelman, a tobacco analyst for Morgan Stanley, said FDA regulation was not likely to hurt the industry's overall profits, unless the agency demands so many changes in tobacco products that consumers no longer want to smoke them. He said the bill could squeeze out small companies because they are less able to afford the process involved to get a new product approved for the market.

Lobbying activity surrounding the bill is intense. In the first quarter of 2009, Altria spent $4.29 million to make its case regarding this bill and a couple of other pieces of tobacco legislation, according to federal lobbying records. Its chief rival, Reynolds American, owner of R.J. Reynolds, spent $1.59 million in that period. Lorillard, the third-largest tobacco maker, paid lobbyists $850,000 in the first three months, records show. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, meanwhile, spent $157,000 during that period.

"I think a lot of people want to get something on the books to begin the process of regulation," said Hurt of the Mayo Clinic. "The tobacco companies are still wildly successful. They still have 43 million smokers, and they're not going to give them up easily. Only time will tell whether this is a mistake or the beginning of reducing the tobacco toll in this country."

The American Press on Suicide Watch

IF you wanted to pick the moment when the American news business went on suicide watch, it was almost exactly three years ago. That’s when Stephen Colbert, appearing at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, delivered a monologue accusing his hosts of being stenographers who had, in essence, let the Bush White House get away with murder (or at least the war in Iraq). To prove the point, the partying journalists in the Washington Hilton ballroom could be seen (courtesy of C-Span) fawning over government potentates — in some cases the very “sources” who had fed all those fictional sightings of Saddam Hussein’s W.M.D.

Colbert’s routine did not kill. The Washington Post reported that it “fell flat.” The Times initially did not even mention it. But to the Beltway’s bafflement, Colbert’s riff went viral overnight, ultimately to have a marathon run as the most popular video on iTunes. The cultural disconnect between the journalism establishment and the public it aspires to serve could not have been more vividly dramatized.

The bad news about the news business has accelerated ever since. Newspaper circulations and revenues are in free fall. Legendary brands from The Los Angeles Times to The Philadelphia Inquirer are teetering. The New York Times Company threatened to close The Boston Globe if its employees didn’t make substantial sacrifices in salaries and benefits. Other papers have died. The reporting ranks on network and local news alike are shriveling. You know it’s bad when the Senate is moved, as it was last week, to weigh in with hearings on “The Future of Journalism.”

Not all is bleak on the Titanic, however. The White House correspondents’ bacchanal was on tap for this weekend. And this time no one could accuse the revelers of failing to get down with the Colbert-iTunes-Facebook young folk: hip big-time journalists now stroke their fans with 140-character messages on Twitter. Or did. No sooner did boldface Washington media personalities ostentatiously embrace Twitter than Nielsen reported that more than 60 percent of Twitter users abandon it after a single month.

The causes of journalism’s downfall — some self-inflicted, some beyond anyone’s control (a worldwide economic meltdown) — are well known. To time-travel back to the dawn of the technological strand of the disaster, search YouTube for “1981 primitive Internet report on KRON.” What you’ll find is a 28-year-old local television news piece from San Francisco about a “far-fetched,” pre-Web experiment by the city’s two papers, The Chronicle and The Examiner, to distribute their wares to readers with home computers via primitive phone modems. Though there were at most 3,000 people in the Bay Area with PCs then, some 500 mailed in coupons for the service to The Chronicle alone. But, as the anchorwoman assures us at the end, with a two-hour download time (at $5 an hour), “the new telepaper won’t be much competition for the 20-cent street edition.”

The rest is irreversible history. This far-fetched newspaper experiment soon faded, even in San Francisco, the gateway to Silicon Valley. Today The Examiner, once the flagship of William Randolph Hearst’s grand journalistic empire, exists in name only, as a flimsy giveaway. The Chronicle is under threat of closure.

But this self-destructive retreat from innovation is hardly novel in the history of American communications. In the last transformative tech revolution before the Internet — television’s emergence in the late 1940s — the pattern was remarkably similar. The entertainment industry referred to TV as “the monster,” and by 1951, the editor of the industry’s trade paper, Variety, was fearful that the monster would “eventually swallow up practically all of show business.” Movies had killed vaudeville a generation earlier. This new household appliance threatened to strangle radio, movies, the Broadway theater, nightclubs and the circus. And newspapers too: “NBC’s New ‘Today’ Attacked by Papers as Competition” screamed a front-page Variety headline in 1952.

The vulnerable establishments in all these fields went nuts. Most movie studios pushed back against the future by refusing to sell their old movies to television or allow their stars to appear on it. Few seized the opportunity to produce programs for the new medium. Instead, some moguls tried to compete by exhibiting sports events by closed-circuit in networks of movie houses. In 1952-53, Cinerama, 3-D and Cinemascope were all heavily promoted to try to retain movie audiences. None of these desperate rear-guard actions could slow the video revolution. Movie newsreels, movie palaces, radio comedy and drama, and afternoon newspapers, among other staples of the American cultural diet, were all doomed.

And yet in 2009, Hollywood movie studios, radio and the Broadway theater, though smaller and much changed, are not dead. They learned to adapt and to collaborate with the monster.

In the Internet era, many sectors of American media have been re-enacting their at first complacent and finally panicked behavior of 60 years ago. Few in the entertainment business saw the digital cancer spreading through their old business models until well after file-sharing, via Napster, had started decimating the music industry. It’s not only journalism that is now struggling to plot a path to survival. But, with all due respect to show business, it’s only journalism that’s essential to a functioning democracy. And it’s not just because — as we keep being tediously reminded — Thomas Jefferson said so.

Yes, journalists have made tons of mistakes and always will. But without their enterprise, to take a few representative recent examples, we would not have known about the wretched conditions for our veterans at Walter Reed, the government’s warrantless wiretapping, the scams at Enron or steroids in baseball.

Such news gathering is not to be confused with opinion writing or bloviating — including that practiced here. Opinions can be stimulating and, for the audiences at Fox News and MSNBC, cathartic. We can spend hours surfing the posts of bloggers we like or despise, some of them gems, even as we might be moved to write our own blogs about local restaurants or the government documents we obsessively study online.

But opinions, however insightful or provocative and whether expressed online or in print or in prime time, are cheap. Reporting the news can be expensive. Some of it — monitoring the local school board, say — can and is being done by voluntary “citizen journalists” with time on their hands, integrity and a Web site. But we can’t have serious opinions about America’s role in combating the Taliban in Pakistan unless brave and knowledgeable correspondents (with security to protect them) tell us in real time what is actually going on there. We can’t know what is happening behind closed doors at corrupt, hard-to-penetrate institutions in Washington or Wall Street unless teams of reporters armed with the appropriate technical expertise and assiduously developed contacts are digging night and day. Those reporters have to eat and pay rent, whether they work for print, a TV network, a Web operation or some new bottom-up news organism we can’t yet imagine.

It’s immaterial whether we find the fruits of their labors on paper, a laptop screen, a BlackBerry, a Kindle or podcast. But someone — and certainly not the government, with all its conflicted interests — must pay for this content and make every effort to police its fairness and accuracy. If we lose the last major news-gathering operations still standing, there will be no news on Google News unless Google shells out to replace them. It won’t.

One of the freshest commentators on Internet culture, Clay Shirky, has written, correctly, that nobody really knows what form journalism will take in the evolving post-newspaper era. Looking back to the unpredictable social and cultural upheavals brought about by Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, he writes, “We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.” So who will do the heavy journalistic lifting? “Whatever works.” Every experiment must be tried, professional and amateur, whether by institutions like The Times or “some 19-year-old kid few of us have heard of.”

What can’t be reinvented is the wheel of commerce. Just because information wants to be free on the Internet doesn’t mean it can always be free. Web advertising will never be profitable enough to support ambitious news gathering. If a public that thinks nothing of spending money on texting or pornography doesn’t foot the bill for such reportage, it won’t happen.

That’s why the debate among journalists about possible forms of payment (subscriptions, NPR-style donations, iTunes-style micropayments, foundation grants) is inside baseball. So is the acrimonious sniping between old media and new. The real question is for the public, not journalists: Does it want to pony up for news, whatever the media that prevail?

It’s all a matter of priorities. Not long ago, we laughed at the idea of pay TV. Free television was considered an inalienable American right (as long as it was paid for by advertisers). Then cable and satellite became the national standard.

By all means let’s mock the old mainstream media as they preen and party on in a Washington ballroom. Let’s deplore the tabloid journalism that, like the cockroach, will always be with us. But if a comprehensive array of real news is to be part of the picture as well, the time will soon arrive for us to put up or shut up. Whatever shape journalism ultimately takes in America, make no mistake that in the end we will get what we pay for.