How grilling meat really is like a smoking a cigar

In his “Explainer” column at Slate yesterday, Brian Palmer raised alarm about grilled and smoked meats, suggesting that by eating them we may be, as the headline puts it, “Cooking Up Cancer”:

A growing body of research suggests that cooking meats over a flame is linked to cancer. Combusting wood, gas, or charcoal emits chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Exposure to these so-called PAHs is known to cause skin, liver, stomach, and several other types of cancer in lab animals. Epidemiological studies link occupational exposure to PAHs to cancer in humans. When PAHs from a flame mingle with nitrogen, say from a slab of meat, they can form nitrated PAHs, or NPAHs. NPAHs are even more carcinogenic than PAHs in laboratory experiments. The reasonable conclusion is that grilling meat may be hazardous to your health.

The evidence linking cancer to cooking meat over a combustion source has been accumulating for decades. Epidemiologists first noticed a connection between the consumption of smoked foods and stomach cancer in the 1960s. Japan, Russia, and Eastern Europe, where smoking is a popular way to preserve meat and fish, became laboratories for gastric cancer research. Newer studies suggest that eating smoked meats may lead to cancer even outside the gastrointestinal tract. A 2012 study, for example, linked smoked meat consumption with breast cancer.

Palmer then compares current attitudes toward grilled meats to outdated acceptance of tobacco use:

In the mid- to late-19th century, doctors determined that lip and tongue cancer rates were higher among smokers of pipes and cigars. Despite this link, major medical journals mocked those who opposed smoking. The Lancet, the leading journal of the time and still one of the most important medical journals in the world, wrote in 1879, “We have no sympathy with prejudices against … tobacco, used under proper restriction as to the time and amount of the consumption. … A cigar when the mood and the circumstances are propitious [is] not only to be tolerated, but approved.” Moderation, not abstinence, was the order of the day.

[…]

It wasn’t until 1964 that the Report of the Surgeon General finally and firmly declared that smoking was indisputably linked to the surge in lung cancer. By that time, epidemiologists had a complete picture of the long-term effects of the increase in cigarette smoking that began around the time of World War I. The conclusions practically drew themselves. Still, it took the public health community decades to agree that smoking in moderation is a terrible idea.

I learned of the article from my friend Jeff Woodhead on Twitter, who took Palmer to task for sensationalizing the dangers of grilling and noted that habitual cigarette use carries far greater risks than exposure to charred meat. I don’t disagree. However I want to defend Palmer on one point. He is actually correct to compare grilling meats to smoking tobacco, though not in the way he realizes.

That pack-a-day consumption of cigarettes greatly elevates one’s risk of lung cancer is no longer disputed by any sensible person. Moderate use of other forms of tobacco, in contrast, carries much less danger. The Lancet article that Palmer mocks for suggesting that moderation in tobacco use is nothing to worry about overstates the case but was not too far from the truth.

Just how dangerous is it to enjoy an occasional cigar “when the mood and the circumstances are propitious?” A study in Preventive Medicine compared rates of lung cancer among smokers of various kinds of tobacco to those of non-smokers. Cigarette smokers were 16 times more likely than never smokers to get lung cancer. Smokers of cigars only, pipes only, and cigars and pipes all fared much better. Further, lung cancer among pipe and cigar smokers was concentrated among those who were the heaviest consumers. “Among pipe and/or cigar smokers only, patients with lung cancer were more likely than controls to have been long-time smokers of 5 or more cigars or 5 or more pipefuls per day and to have inhaled. The odds ratio for those smoking 5 to 9 cigars or pipes per day was 3.2 and for those smoking 10 or more units 6.7. The odds ratio of those cigar or pipe smokers who inhaled was 12.3.”

A cohort study published in The New England Journal of Medicine followed about 17,000 men enrolled in Kaiser Permanente health plans who reported never smoking pipes or cigarettes. Over a course of more than 20 years, the study compared health outcomes for non-smokers and smokers of cigars. Cigar smokers carried a relative risk of cancer in the aerodigestive tract of 2.02 and in the lungs of 2.14.

A third study in BMJ examined the risks of dying from three smoking-related diseases among former cigarette smokers who had switched to smoking pipes or cigars. Their mortality risk relative to users of pipes and cigars who were never cigarette smokers was 1.51. To put that in perspective, their relative risk compared to people who had never smoked at all was 1.68. In other words, the study found that even former cigarette smokers who switch to pipes and cigars lowered their mortality risk to a level not much above that of never smokers.

Brad Rodu, an advocate of harm reduction approaches in tobacco control, summarizes many of these risks. What it basically comes do is this: Cigarettes are uniquely dangerous because they are inhaled directly into the lungs and are very addictive. Other forms of tobacco that are mainly enjoyed in the mouth and lend themselves less easily to habitual consumption are significantly less dangerous. The risks are real, but much, much lower than those associated with cigarettes.

How does all of this compare to eating meat? Palmer doesn’t cite many sources that specify the dangers, but one study he links to does associate consumption of smoked meat with breast cancer. It finds an adjusted odds ratio of 2.31-3.13. If that’s accurate (and it may be on the high side), then eating lots of grilled meat may actually be a lot like enjoying an occasional cigar — which is to say that it’s a reasonable choice many adults may decide to make.

(Note: Some of the studies cited in this post use relative risk while others use odds ratios. These are not identical measures but should be roughly comparable.)

It’s also interesting to ask how this compares to the dangers of exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke. Smoking bans have proliferated on the justification that workers should not be put at risk. Whatever one’s opinion of these policies, consider the findings from the landmark 2006 report from the Surgeon General. The report concludes without equivocation that environmental tobacco smoke increases the risk of lung cancer in non-smokers. By how much? The reports’ table of meta-analyses of studies estimates relative risks of exposure at home for non-smoking spouses or at work for non-smoking employees in a range of 1.12 at the low end to 1.43 on the high end. Those are low relative risks! If they are enough to justify comprehensive bans on indoor smoking — not to mention the outdooor bans that are now so popular — then one may well question the ethics of allowing restaurant cooks to expose themselves to grill smoke on our behalf.

One of the big problems with reporting on cancer is that it focuses on the wrong question. Journalists ask, “Does X increase the risk of cancer?” The answer is very often yes, but they don’t follow-up with, “By how much?” Lifestyle choices carry trade-offs and better reporting would help readers put them into perspective. Palmer, to his credit, does write that the “risk-reward equation for smoking differs from that of grilling or frying meat” and acknowledges that the epidemiology on the latter is not yet clearly established. His mistake is to carelessly lump all forms of tobacco use into one, ignoring the fact that different types and different use patterns carry substantially different levels of risk.

Of course, few yet advocate completely giving up grilled or smoked meat, much less passing legislation to restrict it. “Everything in moderation,” said one of the toxicologists quoted in the Slate article. One assumes that the toxicologist’s definition of “everything” doesn’t include tobacco, because who would say that these days? But Palmer’s comparison of grilling to smoking isn’t crazy. It just tells us a lot more about contemporary bias against tobacco use than it does about the dangers of meat.

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Nicotine and regulatory capture

horsebrass 021

The FDA is expected to announce very soon new regulations governing chewing tobacco, cigars, and likely electronic cigarettes. If you’ve followed my writing on this, you know I don’t think this bodes well for the quality side of the tobacco market. The law giving the agency authority over tobacco products was brokered by an alliance of Philip Morris and anti-smoking groups, and the new head of the FDA’s tobacco division, Mitch Zeller, came to the job straight from consulting for GlaxoSmithKline on nicotine replacement therapies. The agency’s record so far has been distinguished much more by its anti-competitive effects than by any actual achievement improving public health.

The Boston Globe recently interviewed Zeller to get some indication of where the agency may be headed. As expected, it appears likely that Zeller will pursue mandating the removal of nearly all nicotine from cigarettes:

1. Create a non-addictive cigarette. We have the authority given to us by Congress to reduce nicotine in cigarettes down to nearly zero,” Zeller said. Since nicotine is the addictive chemical in cigarettes, teens who start smoking products that are almost nicotine-free could, in theory, never get hooked in the first place. Researchers now have access to 9 million cigarettes with varying amounts of nicotine to start testing whether products with lower amounts will lead to less addiction among new smokers. But don’t expect an ultra-low-nicotine product for at least a few years, Zeller added, since the studies are just beginning.

A few notes on this:

1) This would obviously be good news for Zeller’s former client in the pharmaceutical industry. Removal of nicotine from cigarettes would leave smokers craving nicotine and many of them would likely turn to patches, gums, and the like. Zeller indicates in the same interview that the agency should perhaps remove warning labels from nicotine replacement therapies that discourage consumers from using them long-term, noting that using these products for life is healthier than smoking.

Even if this is good policy, Zeller’s previous job casts doubt on the FDA’s ability to consider the issue impartially. As many warned at the time of his appointment, his role as lead regulator of tobacco creates a blatant conflict of interest at the agency.

2) Mandated removal of nicotine could be good news for makers of electronic cigarettes, which now include the Big Tobacco companies. But it’s not clear that the FDA will turn a favorable eye to those, either. If the agency’s performance on cigarettes is any indication, e-cigarettes could be caught in a bureaucratic morass that keeps new products off the market with scant scientific justification.

3) Rather than turn to pharmaceuticals or e-cigarettes, at least some smokers will likely switch to cheap, low-quality cigars. Even if the FDA does not initially regulate nicotine levels in cigars, this will provide the impetus to extend the regulation. We’ve seen this before with bans on flavors or changes to tax policy when producers and consumers respond with products that technically qualify as cigars or pipe tobacco. Lawmakers and regulators then attempt to close the “loophole.” Makers of high-quality, traditional cigars would be caught in the crossfire. Whether or not one has any personal interest in cigarettes, if you enjoy an occasional pipe or cigar, then the FDA’s path should have you worried. There may be no way to produce a traditional cigar and comply with the FDA’s demands. This is the road that could lead to the complete destruction of the industry.

For more on how the FDA is getting tobacco regulation wrong, see my articles from the past year:
Who’s killing the electronic cigarette?
How the FDA is keeping new cigarettes off the market
The case against a smoke-free America

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Two new cigarettes, now authorized for sale

This week the FDA sent out a press release boasting that its Center for Tobacco Products has finally issued a few decisions on new tobacco products:

For the first time since the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products, the agency has authorized the marketing of two new tobacco products and denied the marketing of four others through the substantial equivalence (SE) pathway. […]

“Today’s historic announcement marks an important step toward the FDA’s goal of reducing preventable disease and death caused by tobacco,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “The FDA has unprecedented responsibility to protect public health by not allowing new tobacco products under FDA’s authority to come to market without FDA review.”

To put this into context, when I wrote about the FDA in March the agency had received about 3,500 new product applications. The most reasonable interpretation of the law giving the agency authority over tobacco implies that these reviews should take only 90 days, and certainly no more than 180, yet some of these have languished in a bureaucratic quagmire for years. Issuing only six decisions since 2009, with more than 100 employees at work reviewing them, is hardly an accomplishment worthy of praise.

(If you’re wondering, Hestia Tobacco, the brand I profiled for The Atlantic, remains tied up in the review process with no end in sight.)

It’s also worth emphasizing what these approvals don’t mean. They don’t mean that these two new cigarettes are any safer than products already on the market, only that they don’t raise any new questions of health. In other words, they’re just as lethal — though no more so, we are told to believe — as other cigarettes. New cigarettes like Hestia, which by any sensible standard also raise no new questions of public health, continue to be blocked. It’s difficult to see what good is accomplished by requiring them to go through this lengthy approval process.

And in the midst of this, the future of e-cigarettes remains unclear. As I explained at The Umlaut this week, this product that is indisputably safer than real cigarettes may soon fall under the same heavy-handed regulation that has brought the tobacco industry to a standstill. If that happens, the FDA will have even less to brag about that it does today.

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Who’s killing the electronic cigarette?

That’s the topic of my article for The Ümlaut, a new website published by Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado:

Since no one seriously disputes that using e-cigarettes is far safer than habitually inhaling cigarette smoke, allowing them to compete should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the law allows the FDA to ban new tobacco products even when they are irrefutably safer than what is already for sale. The agency evaluates applications based not only on the risk to individual users, but also on how they impact smoking cessation and initiation in the population as a whole. If the FDA decides that these effects outweigh the health benefits, it could ban e-cigarettes not because they are dangerous, but rather in spite of their safety.

I feel obliged to make one update to the story. In it I say that the nadir of fear-mongering about e-cigarettes is a doctor from the Mayo Clinic telling journalist Eli Lake that the propylene glycol used in some brands is “similar to antifreeze.” He was recently outdone by a North Carolina doctor who appeared on a local news segment to warn viewers that e-cigarette vapor could be “several thousand degrees” when it hits your lungs. The physics of this would be rather remarkable, as would e-cigarette users’ ability to endure the product if it were true. Michael Siegel has the details and you can watch the segment here.

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Cato podcast on FDA tobacco regulation

While in DC this week I recorded a couple podcasts. Here’s the first, with the Cato Institute’s Caleb Brown. In it we cover FDA regulation of cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and cigars.

One minor correction: We were only discussing these inhalable products, so I misspoke when saying that current FDA regulations only cover cigarettes. The agency regulates smokeless tobacco too.

Update 5/30/13: Or if you prefer video…

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Tobacco news roundup

New FDA Center for Tobacco Products director Mitch Zeller tells Bloomberg to expect action from the agency soon and that he seeks to craft a “comprehensive nicotine policy.” What could that mean? Unmentioned in the article are Zeller’s ties to producers of pharmaceutical nicotine replacement products or his interest in reducing nicotine levels in cigarettes to near zero, a proposal he brings up in the most recent issue of Tobacco Control.

My friends the Stogie Guys have a couple recent posts that are worth reading. In the first, they explain how Big Tobacco has become the enemy of small, premium tobacco through its lobbying efforts. In the second, they examine what a new bill requiring online merchants to collect sales taxes may mean for the cigar industry.

Hestia Tobacco, the brand whose struggle to navigate the FDA’s approval process I documented for The Atlantic, is finally in business. Not selling cigarettes, of course, but rather filtered little cigars. Sale of their cigarettes must await greater competence at the agency. If the product interests you, go check them out.

Christine Quinn, a leader in polls to replace Bloomberg as New York City’s next mayor, appears to have embraced Bloomberg’s nannying legacy. She has proposed raising the legal age to purchase cigarettes within the city to 21. As J. D. Tuccille notes at Reason, this would be good news for black market sellers, who already claim more than 60% of the state’s cigarette market.

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DC wants to ban e-cigs in bars

People in DC bars are “vaping,” or using electronic cigarettes, indoors. A couple members of the DC city council — Yvette M. Alexander and David Grosso — have introduced a bill to include e-cigarettes in the city’s smoking ban:

In an interview, Alexander said e-cigarettes are being “used to usurp the smoking ban.”

“It is smoking, is an inhalant and it’s similar to smoking,” said Alexander, chairwoman of the Health Committee. “We don’t know what the ill effects of this are, and it’s still a bother to some people.”

“Similar to smoking” and “a bother.” Time was city officials at least made a show of finding evidence of harm before imposing bans. E-cigarettes may be annoying to other patrons, but there’s no evidence or reason to believe that secondhand vapor (is that a thing now?) is something to fear. And to point out the obvious, bar and restaurant owners are perfectly free to set their own policies if guests prefer to avoid it.

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New taxes on pipes and cigars?

According to Bloomberg, President Obama will be proposing new tobacco taxes to fund pre-kindergarten programs:

Obama’s 2014 budget proposal, to be released April 10, would finance a pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds with higher taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. The president outlined the program in his annual State of the Union speech to Congress. He’s seeking to increase spending in areas such as education while Republican lawmakers are pushing for additional budget cuts as a way to reduce the federal deficit.

White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to elaborate on the proposed tobacco-tax increase. “Wait for specifics,” he told reporters at a briefing yesterday.

Never mind for now that cigarette smokers already suffered a more than doubling of the federal tax in Obama’s first year in office. The “other tobacco products” part of this proposal is reason to worry for those who enjoy pipes and cigars.

The 2009 tobacco tax increases to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program created some significant disparities among similar products. Pipe tobacco was taxed at a far lower rate than roll-your-own (RYO). Large cigars sometimes get much more favorable treatment than small cigars. As a result, producers and consumers shifted to pipe tobacco instead of RYO and added just enough weight to small cigars to qualify as large. The distorting effects of these taxes were immediate and striking:

These changes are almost entirely a matter of legal classification. Actual consumption patterns haven’t changed in the way the chart suggests. Neither pipes nor premium cigars have enjoyed an explosion of new consumers as a result of these taxes.

Nonetheless, the government wants to fix this disparity. A report from the General Accounting Office, the source of the chart above (PDF), estimates that in the first two years of new taxes these substitution effects may have cost the treasury up to $1.1 billion.

One way to fix the disparity would be to lower taxes on RYO and small cigars, but that’s not going to happen. So don’t be at all surprised if the proposal from the Obama Administration includes tax hikes on pipe tobacco and large cigars, imposing substantial new costs on consumers and retailers.

For more, read Michael Siegel’s take on the tax proposal. And for a longer explanation of how smoking bans, higher taxes, and FDA regulation threaten the premium cigar industry, see my December article in The Atlantic.

Update 4/10/13: Via International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers on Facebook, this is apparently the language in the budget proposal:

Increase tobacco taxes and index for inflation

Under current law, cigarettes are taxed at a rate of $50.33 per 1,000 cigarettes. This is equivalent to just under $1.01 per pack, or approximately $22.88 per pound of tobacco. Taxes on other tobacco products range from $0.5033 per pound for chewing tobacco to $24.78 per pound of roll your-own tobacco.

The Administration proposes to increase the tax on cigarettes to $97.65 per 1,000 cigarettes, or about $1.95 per pack, increase all other tobacco taxes by about the same proportion, and index the taxes for inflation after 2014. The Administration also proposes to clarify that roll-your-own tobacco includes any processed tobacco that is removed for delivery to anyone other than a manufacturer of tobacco products or exporter. The rate increases would be effective for articles held for sale or removed after December 31, 2013.

As predicted, all loose tobacco would be treated equally, resulting in a huge tax increase for pipe smokers. Details on cigars are lacking, but it looks they would be hit too.

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More questions from the FDA

Good news: The FDA is once again taking action on the application of Hestia Tobacco, the aspiring start-up whose case I profiled in The Atlantic this week. Bad news: The agency returns with a new round of demands for information.

To recap, in order to bring their cigarettes to market, Hestia Tobacco and brand owner David Sley must prove that their product is substantially equivalent to a product that was already on the market before February 2007. Sley identified the original blend of Natural American Spirit as his chosen predicate and submitted a report demonstrating the very tight similarities between it and his product.

Natural American Spirit is an established brand, successful enough that its parent company was acquired by Reynolds American in 2001. Even if you don’t smoke, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with it. Yet Hestia Tobacco’s newest task is proving that this product really was for sale, as explained in an email Sley received this morning and in a phone call yesterday:

Dear Mr. Sley,

Thank you for taking the time to speak with CTP’s Office of Compliance and Enforcement today regarding your 905(j) submission. In follow-up to our conversation, please find below a summary of the information we requested.

1. Evidence demonstrating that the predicate tobacco product was commercially marketed in the United States as of 2/15/2007

Please provide evidence to demonstrate that the predicate tobacco product was commercially marketed in the United States on 2/15/2007. If you cannot provide evidence demonstrating the tobacco product was commercially marketed on 2/15/2007, per our discussion, we suggest that you provide evidence that your product was commercially marketed before and after 2/15/2007.

Examples of such evidence may include, but are not limited to, the following:
• dated copies of advertisements;
• dated catalog pages;
• dated promotional material;
• dated trade publications;
• dated bills of lading;
• dated freight bills;
• dated waybills;
• dated customer receipts; or
• dated distributor or retailer inventory lists.

2. Evidence Description

Please provide a brief statement or chart explaining and identifying any abbreviations (e.g. item number and/or product description) in the evidence and how it references the predicate tobacco product.

3. Package Description

Please provide a statement as to whether the cigarettes are sold as a soft pack or hard pack.

4. Statement that the predicate tobacco product was not in a test market as of 2/15/2007

As you stated in the teleconference, your predicate tobacco product is Original Blend Natural American Spirit and you do not own the product. Thus, in addition to providing a statement that to the best of your knowledge the predicate tobacco product was not in a test market only on 2/15/2007, please provide additional evidence to show that product was not in a test market only. Examples of this additional evidence can include but are not limited to: dated copies of U.S. advertisements, dated U.S. promotional materials, dated online U.S. product reviews, dated U.S. articles, etc.

We request that you provide the above information for the following 905(j) Report (SE0004644) as soon as possible.

You may receive additional requests if further information is needed. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Thank you!

[Redacted]

Hestia Tobacco’s application was submitted in June of last year. As explained in my article, the law implies that these reviews should be complete within 90 days, or at most 180. Regardless of whether one considers this latest request for information legitimate, it’s rather late for the agency to be getting around to it. And the timing — arriving the first business day after my article ran — is something to ponder.

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Markets not in everything

My article today at The Atlantic looks at the anti-competitive effects of the FDA’s regulation of tobacco:

David Sley wants to sell cigarettes. This, by his own admission, does not make him the most sympathetic person to feature in an article about excessive government regulation. Yet Sley, an aspiring entrepreneur who has spent more than two years trying to navigate the Food and Drug Administration’s new tobacco regulations, has legitimate cause to complain. The entire cigarette industry has been brought to a standstill by the FDA, forbidden from introducing any new products since March 2011. Tobacco companies contend that the agency’s actions rest on uncertain scientific and legal grounds — and, for once, they may be right.

In the article I document Sley’s attempt to launch a new cigarette brand, a process which has dragged on for more than two years without resolution. As you may remember, the Tobacco Control Act was backed and negotiated by Philip Morris, who just might have anticipated such a result.

The extremely slow approval process also bodes poorly for the premium cigar market, which is even more dynamic than that for cigarettes. Cigar lovers should pay close attention when the FDA issues its proposed rules for cigars later this year.

Read the whole thing.

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California brings smoking ban inside the home

It was only a matter of time:

Millions of Californians would not be able to smoke tobacco inside their own homes under new legislation that would raise the bar nationwide for fighting secondhand smoke.

No state ever has ventured into personal bedrooms and living rooms with its smoking restrictions, but California is going even further than that by targeting owner-occupied residences as well as rental units.

Specifically, the measure would prohibit lighting up a cigarette, cigar or pipe in condominiums, duplexes and apartment units. […]

Levine’s bill would permit outdoor smoking near apartments or condos, but only in a clearly marked area that is at least 20 feet from any housing unit and 100 feet from a playground, school or pool.

Who could have predicted that ignoring property rights and letting bad science go unchallenged would lead to this?

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Reform Oregon’s smoking ban

An Oregonian editorial last week was refreshingly libertarian, calling for same-sex marriage, tuition equity for some undocumented immigrants, restraint on gun control, and even opposition to the state’s smoking ban. I sent in a letter about the last item, which they published today:

The Jan. 12 libertarian-leaning editorial “Protect and expand personal freedom: Agenda 2013” was a breath of fresh air, especially in regard to our state’s excessively stringent smoking ban.

Current law makes few exceptions for businesses that cater to smokers, making it essentially illegal for entrepreneurs to open new cigar bars or smoking lounges even in stand-alone tobacco shops. Regardless of whether one supports a broad smoking ban, it’s difficult to justify forbidding these businesses to open.

Sensible reform would replace the current exemptions, which apply only to venues that have been grandfathered in, with objective guidelines that would allow both existing and aspiring business owners to offer smokers an indoor refuge.

As I reported in the Oregonian in 2011, the promised decline in heart attacks that the smoking ban was supposed to usher in never developed.

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When candy cigarettes are outlawed…

A city inspector in St. Paul spent his time last week seizing contraband candy cigarettes from an old-time soda shop and threatening the owners with a fine if they sell the sweet treats again:

Lynden’s, on Hamline Avenue near Cretin-Derham Hall High School, said a city inspections official came in last week and gave the shop a warning and added that a misdemeanor citation — with a $500 fine — would be next if the non-carcinogenic confections continue to be sold.

There are legitimate reasons why one may not want to sell candy cigarettes, but a law banning the products seems excessive. Thank local anti-smoking groups for putting the law into place:

The ordinance was championed by a group of St. Paul teenagers working with the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota, which educates youth groups and individuals who want to lobby for anti-tobacco policies.

You’ve gotta get them hooked on banning things when they’re kids if you want them to continue banning things as adults.

[Via BoingBoing.]

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Save the stogies

My forthcoming article that I’ve alluded to a couple times this week is now up at The Atlantic:

If a time traveler from the early 1990s were to arrive in the U.S. bars and restaurants of today, what would notice first? Perhaps that the food has become more interesting and varied, or that a perplexing number of diners are photographing it with their remarkable phones. The most obvious change, however, might register on the nose: the nearly complete absence of indoor smoking.

California implemented the United States’ first modern statewide smoking ban in 1998. Today twenty-nine states and 703 municipalities require bars and restaurants to be smoke-free, according to data maintained by the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation (North Dakota brought the tally to thirty states this month). Tobacco use has been banished from our culinary radar along with the question “smoking or non?” Most of us don’t miss it. Yet as a slew of new bans, taxes, and regulations drive smoking to the peripheries of society, it’s worth giving tobacco another look.

Read the whole thing. And for more context on some of the arguments, see my recent posts about the effects of new tobacco taxes and the failure of the FDA to establish an effective regulatory regime.

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Incentives matter, tobacco taxes edition

One of the topics I’ve been researching for a forthcoming article is the effect of the higher tobacco taxes imposed by the Childrens Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act (CHIPRA). CHIPRA raised tobacco taxes across the board but it didn’t raise them equally; some products were hit harder than others. The most relevant disparities are between roll-your-own (RYO) tobacco and pipe tobacco, and between small cigars and large cigars.

Before CHIPRA, pipe tobacco and RYO were both taxed federally at $1.10 per pound. After CHIPRA, the former increased to $2.83 while the latter increased to $24.78. Since the two products can be treated as substitutes for each other, this naturally led to manufacturers and consumers shifting to products labeled as pipe tobacco for use in rolling cigarettes. A similar shift affected the cigar market, where it became advantageous for some producers of small cigars to slightly increase the weight of their products to qualify as large cigars. (Direct comparison of taxes on small and large cigars is complicated by the fact that small cigars are taxed by weight and large cigars by value.)

I knew that these market distortions were occurring, but I didn’t realize just how substantial they were until reading a report from the General Accounting Office (PDF) from earlier this year on the effects of CHIPRA taxes. Here in two charts is a dramatic illustration of unintended consequences at work:

At first glance this may look like booming business for producers of pipe tobacco and cigars, but of course that’s not what’s happening. The changes are almost entirely nominal. Yet since they reduce tax receipts for the government, the pressure is on now to fix the disparity by raising taxes yet again. This would be another blow to producers of traditional pipe tobacco and large cigars, as well as the retailers who sell their products.

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115 employees, 3 years, 0 results

When the Food and Drug Administration was granted authority over tobacco products, many people (myself included) objected that this was an inappropriate field for the agency to be involved in. Among other reasons, it makes little sense for the FDA to approve products that are to some degree inherently dangerous. An excellent article from Michael Felberbaum of the Associated Press shows that the agency has failed to establish reasonable standards of review and has halted innovation in the parts of the industry it regulates:

Tobacco companies have introduced almost no new cigarettes or smokeless tobacco products in the U.S. in more than 18 months because the federal government has prevented them from doing so, an Associated Press review has found. […]

Since June 2009, when the law allowing the agency to regulate tobacco went into effect, the tobacco industry has submitted nearly 3,500 product applications, according to data obtained by the AP under a Freedom of Information Act request. While none have been ruled upon, the vast majority of these products are already being sold.

A grandfather clause in the law allows products introduced between February 2007 and March 2011 that are similar to those previously on the market to be sold while under review. They can be removed from store shelves if they don’t pass muster with the agency. But 400 products submitted for review since March 2011 are being kept off the market.

The reviews, which are supposed to take 90 days, have dragged on for years in some cases. About 90 percent of applications have lingered for more than a year.

Nearly 3,500 applications over three years and zero rulings. Perhaps the agency is understaffed? Not exactly:

The [FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products] has an annual budget of more than $450 million, funded by the industry, and more than 365 employees, about 115 of whom work on the application reviews.

One hundred fifteen employees and zero rulings. One wonders what they do all day.

Part of the problem is that the agency evaluates products not merely on their physical characteristics, but also on whether they may entice new smokers or discourage current smokers from quitting. Since any new product is intended to appeal to someone, it’s not clear to me how applicants can decisively prove to hostile regulators that their products meet this requirement.

Perhaps one does not feel much sympathy for the tobacco companies. But note that the FDA has signaled that it will likely soon be regulating cigars too, and imagine giving the lumbering agency veto power over all new cigar blends. If Philip Morris and Lorillard can’t push new products through the approval process, how will boutique cigar makers fare? As demonstrated by the FDA’s handling of tobacco thus far, regulation could be devastating to the premium cigar industry.This is a topic I’ll be covering in greater depth next week.

Update 12/14/12: Michael Siegel weighs in too:

The rest of the story is that the Tobacco Act is working exactly as I predicted it would: as a way to protect the existing cigarettes on the market and block any real possibility of competition from what could be truly safer products.

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