04/12/2007 05:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Unintended Consequences of Tobacco Laws

Perhaps the notion that members of Congress don't read the legislation they vote on is an outside the beltway myth. But if you were asked to vote on tobacco legislation without having the opportunity to read it -- knowing only that the bill was supported by Altria (Philip Morris) and opposed by the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), how would you vote?

I hope you wouldn't vote with Senator Ted Kennedy, whose "Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act " could be a casebook study of the law of unintended consequences.

By treating all tobacco products equally in this bill, Senator Kennedy promotes the fallacy that all tobacco is equally dangerous. Yet smokeless tobacco, which can be used as a method of harm reduction for addicted smokers, is significantly less harmful than smoking cigarettes.

I know this may surprise you, but the fact is that modern smokeless tobacco products are considerably less harmful than cigarettes. No one should start using any form of tobacco if they can avoid it. But for those who are already lifelong smokers unable to quit nicotine altogether, smokeless tobacco at least provides a far, far safer (albeit not completely risk-free) way of getting nicotine. Nicotine, while highly addictive, is among the least harmful elements of a cigarette. It is the burning and inhaling of the tobacco which exposes users to the most deadly dangers.

Not convinced? Consider this: the risk of oral cancer from smokeless tobacco is lower -- yes -- lower than the risk of oral cancer from smoking cigarettes. And using smokeless comes with virtually none of the other health risks associated with burning and inhaling tobacco from a cigarette.

Public policies that ignore these facts undermine public health. Unfounded, unscientific pronouncements that lump all tobacco products and their risks together ultimately undermine the basic purpose of tobacco-regulatory policies.

So instead of giving smokers tools to quit, the bill hinders innovative approaches. No wonder
the leading cigarette marketer supports this bill.

Additionally, giving the FDA authority to require lower levels of nicotine in cigarettes could actually harm public health. After all, it is the thousands of harmful chemicals that are burned and inhaled that make tobacco so deadly. Remember, nicotine, while highly addictive, is among the least harmful elements of a cigarette. So reducing nicotine will cause smokers to inhale more of the bad stuff, just to get the same amount of nicotine they crave.

Further, just as the Congressionally mandated Surgeon General's warning label did decades ago, this type of FDA authority would give big tobacco a powerful piece of armor in their quest for immunity from lawsuits.

It is no wonder the FDA's Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach doesn't want Senator Kennedy telling the FDA to put a stamp of semi-approval on tobacco products.

Proponents of this legislation are right to target smoking- they just go about it the wrong way.