February 23, 1996

February 23, 1996 | Commentary on Political Thought

ED022396b: FDA: The Smoking Police

Is the government supposed to protect us from everything that could possibly harm us? Or are there some areas where we should be responsible for taking care of ourselves?

Take teenagers and smoking. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its Commissioner David Kessler are getting ready to pounce on America with a litany of new regulations aimed at stopping teens from smoking.

The FDA's proposed restrictions include:

  • Banning cigarette vending machines and self-service displays in stores;
  • Requiring tobacco companies to launch a $150 million-per-year nationwide TV ad campaign to discourage underage smoking;
  • Banning the use of tobacco brand names on T-shirts, hats, keychains and lighters; and
  • Banning brand-name sponsorship of sporting events, such as the Virginia Slims tennis tournament.

Of course, we all agree underage teenagers shouldn't smoke; that's not the issue. The issue is whether the FDA should launch yet another extravagant regulatory crusade whose nuisance value will likely outweigh any benefits.

Remember: this is the FDA that conducted the 1991 raid that captured 24,000 half-gallons of Citrus Hill "fresh choice" orange juice, all because the agency didn't like the way the o.j. was labeled! Are the food and drug police now going to swoop down on every mom and pop grocery store to make sure teen employees aren't smoking in the boy's room?

Apparently so. Since 1990, the FDA's staff has grown from 7,600 to 8,700, and its budget has ballooned from $598 million to $760 million. They've got to do something with all that extra manpower and money.

So, now they're going to send out an army of regulators whose job will be to make sure mom and pop conceal cigarettes from view - as if this ever stopped a teenager from doing something he or she was determined to do. Store workers will have to take time out to deal with every tobacco transaction, since cigarettes will only be sold from behind the counter and not from self-service displays. The watchdogs will probably even send in teenagers paid to test the system. If something slips through the cracks, out come the handcuffs!

Come on. American University student and former Heritage Foundation intern Jennifer Murray may have said it best in a recent essay when she accused President Clinton of forgetting what it's like to be a teenager. "Formula-One racing cars painted with tobacco company logos, billboards at sports events, advertisements in magazines (particulary of those men on horseback) - none of these had anything to do with my [former] tendency to light up," Jennifer confessed. "The main contributor was something President Clinton's 'solutions' would only encourage: rebellion." The new federal regulations, far from preventing teens from smoking, "by focusing additional attention on the forbidden, could actually entice them," Jennifer warns.

Isn't there someone more qualified than the FDA orange juice police to address this issue? Such as parents?

Let's get real. As Jennifer pointed out, "Banning cigarette ads and vending machines will do more for President Clinton's wavering image than it will for teens." Does anyone really believe the president is lying awake at night worrying about teen smoking? I kinda doubt it. But he is worried about being popular in an election year.

Smoking sure isn't as popular as it used to be. And everybody cares about kids.

You do the math.

Note:Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Related Issues: Political Thought