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Israeli anti-tobacco activists are divided over whether the government should initiate a law to regulate the manufacture and marketing of tobacco products. Such a law is about to be signed by US President Barack Obama - 45 years after the US Surgeon General officially declared that smoking was dangerous to health.
SMOKING IS inherently dangerous, but efforts to regulate cigarettes could lead some smokers to think they're not so bad, a leading anti-smoking activist says.
Under the law, the US Food and Drug Administration will form an independent agency called the Tobacco Oversight Center to regulate tobacco products, to be funded to the tune of $230 million annually by the tobacco companies.
The agency would be able to require that cigarettes be so bad tasting or so weak that few smokers would want to light them up; cut the amount of addictive nicotine; prohibit tobacco flavorings like cherry, chocolate and licorice, which attract children and other first-time smokers; and require graphic images on packets to make the product repulsive.
It could also restrict new tobacco products for the market and limit tobacco advertising to dull, blackandwhite texts.
Even though cigarettes and other tobacco products kill half of their users, the FDA would not have the power to prohibit the sale of tobacco or completely bar the presence of addictive nicotine - as these could send smokers to a black market to get cigarettes and elicit political opposition or lawsuits.
Obama, a smoker who has said he finds it difficult to quit, supported the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act as a senator from Illinois and has promised to sign it into law immediately after approval by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate version was approved almost unanimously late last week, and the House is due to approve it soon.
In the US, where tobacco is a $ 90 billion-a-year industry and 20 percent of the population smokes, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the law would cut smoking among children and teenagers by 11% and among adults by two percent.
Ironically, the legislation was backed not only by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an anti-smoking organization based in Washington, but also by Altria, the largest US tobacco company, which owns Philip Morris and produces the top Marlboro brand of cigarettes. However, it was opposed by the other halfdozen tobacco companies that produce or sell their products in the US.
Amos Hausner, Israel's leading smoke-free advocate, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that the US legislation was "very controversial" and that he had "mixed feelings about it."
"The danger to health is inherent to tobacco products. But if there is regulation by the authorities, smokers could think they're not so bad," he explained.
He added, though, that if Israel wanted to implement a similar policy, " we don't need the US law, because since 1993, Israel has had pharmaceutical regulations that give the health minister the power to issue regulations regarding consumer products that endanger health - and cigarettes are included. The health minister can demand changes by the manufacturer and even prohibit sale."
Asked why Altria supported the US bill, the Jerusalem lawyer, who is also chairman of the Israel Council for the Prevention of Smoking, said the problem with the US law is that "it perpetuates the composition of existing tobacco products and makes it hard to eliminate certain substances, which works in favor of the company that currently controls the US and Israeli market."
The ministry executive briefly discussed the US law during its weekly Sunday morning meeting. It has not yet released its official policy. But the ministry fears that the Treasury would not give it funding for a unit to supervise and regulate tobacco products, even if a law to this effect were passed.
Dr. Lea Rosen, a former Health Ministry public health official who now does research on tobacco cessation at Tel Aviv University's School of Public Health, told the Post that in general, she would favor such a law here.
"It could move us forward if passed and implemented. In the US, it could be a great victory for tobacco control and will likely be a turning point in the history of tobacco use in the US. It is important that nicotine content in tobacco products can be regulated by the government."
While the US law is seriously flawed, Rosen continued, "it would move tobacco control ahead more reliably than nearly anything else that could be done at the moment. It could set the stage for further regulation."