Big Tobacco: Down but never out.

The federal government finally will regulate cigarette manufacturing and marketing. That’s long overdue, as anyone familiar with the tobacco industry’s shameful history can attest.

President Barack Obama — an occasional smoker who admits that he still struggles daily with his nicotine addiction — signed legislation on Monday that gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority over the industry.

Smoking kills an estimated 443,000 Americans every year. For each person who dies, 20 more develop serious illness. Not all of them are smokers. The annual cost of treating tobacco-related disease is $96 billion.

The new law is a major victory for common sense and health. Anti-smoking advocates have hailed it as a “historic blow against the greatest public health menace of our time.”

But is it a death blow? Don’t count on it.

Time and time again, the tobacco industry has absorbed historic blows.

Like Jason, the villain in those “Friday the 13th” slasher flicks, it’s risen each time to inexorably stalk its young prey.

“We are presently, and I believe unfairly, constrained from directly promoting cigarettes to the youth market.”

In 1973, an R.J. Reynolds tobacco company employee named Claude E. Teague sketched out strategy ideas in a memo to his bosses. His handiwork, from which that quote is taken, later landed in the public archives of tobacco industry documents.

“If our company is to survive and prosper over the long term,” Mr. Teague wrote, “we must get our share of the youth market.”

Doing so required more than just inventing new brands that appeal to what he called “pre-smokers and ‘learning’ smokers.” It also involved manipulating the level of nicotine in cigarettes.

“Nicotine should be delivered at about 1.0-1.3 mg./cigarette, the minimum for confirmed smokers,” Mr. Teague wrote. “The rate of absorption of nicotine should be kept low by holding pH down, probably below 6.”

The industry would have you believe that is ancient history. In fact, tobacco companies have continued both marketing to young people and manipulating nicotine levels in its products.

A 2006 study, for example, found that changes in cigarette design between 1998 and 2004 increased the amount of nicotine delivered to smokers by an average of 10 percent.

It increased by a whopping 36 percent in Doral cigarettes, made by — you guessed it — R.J. Reynolds, Mr. Teague’s former employer.

The “pre-smokers and ‘learning’ smokers” of 1973 are today in their 40s and 50s. Many are struggling with the health consequences of their addiction. It’s too late for them.

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which Mr. Obama signed this week, is designed to protect a newer generation of Americans. It bans the sale of candy and fruit-flavored cigarettes aimed at enticing young people into smoking; bans misleading health claims like “light” or “low-tar”; and gives the FDA authority over how tobacco products are manufactured, allowing it to prevent the manipulation of nicotine in cigarettes to addict more smokers.

It also toughens restrictions against marketing cigarettes to children. Those restrictions have been around in one form or another since the early 1970s — and have been skirted by tobacco companies for just as long.

Those are all important protections. They will work better in conjunction with clean indoor-air laws that prohibit smoking in public buildings.

Clayton’s Board of Aldermen is poised to enact such an ordinance protecting the right of nonsmokers in restaurants and bars.

A citizen’s group in Kirkwood is gathering signatures to place a clean indoor-air law on the ballot in November. Arnold, Ballwin and the entire state of Illinois already have such laws.

Effective federal regulation can help curb a rogue industry like Big Tobacco. But it won’t drive a stake through its heart.

As long as cigarette makers continue selling death and disability by the carton, they will be hoping for a sequel.


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