It took decades of scientific and political battles before cigarette makers would admit the obvious: Cigarettes kill people. Warnings about the dangers of smoking are now plain on every pack sold in America.
It took years of brawling in statehouses before tough anti-smoking laws exiled smokers to the sidewalks.
Now, there's another fight — no, another chance — to stop kids from starting this lethal habit and to help adults quit.
The U.S. House has voted overwhelmingly to allow the federal Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco, much as it oversees prescription drugs. That's a smart move. Under the proposed law, the FDA would gain power to:
• Force tobacco companies to disclose the ingredients in their products. Let's end the guessing game about what's in a cigarette. The FDA could decide whether to set caps on certain chemicals in tobacco, or to change the composition of cigarettes to make them less dangerous to smokers and people around them. It could curb nicotine levels.
• Force tobacco companies to expand the size of warning labels on the package.
• Restrict advertising and promotion. Tobacco manufacturers couldn't use misleading terms like "light," "mild" and "low tar." Research suggests that such cigarettes may be even riskier than standard cigarettes. One theory: People compensate for the lower nicotine level by inhaling more deeply or smoking more.
• Crack down on sales of tobacco to kids. The FDA would work with states to beef up enforcement and could levy its own fines for retailers who sell to kids.
Now, the concept of tobacco regulation strikes some people as absurd. Here's a product that, when used as directed, kills people. But prohibition is hardly an option. This country has some experience in trying that with alcohol.
FDA oversight is the best option for reducing the 400,000 deaths each year attributed to tobacco use.
Even Altria, the parent company of industry leader Philip Morris USA, has embraced this bill, saying such regulation "would provide some clear guidelines for products that could potentially reduce the harm caused by smoking."
It has been nine years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the FDA had no power to regulate tobacco because Congress had not granted that power. So, senators, pass this bill. President Barack Obama, a smoker who has struggled to quit, says he'll sign it.
Cigarettes will never be safe. But the FDA can make sure that smokers know what they're getting — and understand the risks.