For the first time, Big Tobacco must ask for government permission to market new cigarette brands under the still-evolving oversight of the industry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And the FDA, in its efforts to improve public health by reducing smoking, put tobacco firms on notice late last month that sometimes its answer will be no.
While the agency did approve the marketing of two more versions of the flagship Newport brand from the Lorillard Tobacco Co., it rejected four requests to sell other tobacco products - and announced that firms had pulled 136 more products from FDA consideration.
The agency's rulings establish an important principle that - in the view of FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg - "new tobacco products under FDA's authority cannot come to market without FDA's review."
Anti-teen-smoking advocates also hailed the fact that regulators appear to be serious about requiring tobacco companies to demonstrate that new products won't lead to more young people picking up the habit, which often means a lifelong addiction and the attendant health problems.
Tobacco-related illnesses kill 443,000 Americans each year. That deadly toll has yet to be affected by the decision to subject tobacco to federal regulation under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. To make an impact, the FDA will have to do more than exercise its power to screen tobacco products - a task that, with literally thousands of new-product applications in the pipeline, itself could overwhelm the agency.
The agency should also refocus on its initial push to require that cigarette packages bear graphic warning labels to discourage people from starting the habit and to convince smokers that it's finally time to kick it.
The admittedly scary labels proposed two years ago and backed by President Obama showed such images as a man smoking a cigarette through a tracheotomy hole in his neck, diseased lungs, and even corpses. The grotesque labels drive home the message that, even if used properly, cigarettes are one of the few legal products likely to prove lethal.
After agreeing to FDA regulation - chiefly to enshrine legal protections against an outright ban of tobacco products - the industry fiercely fought the labeling proposals in court.
Unfortunately, it found federal judges who agreed that the FDA labeling requirement violated tobacco firms' free-speech rights. In March, Obama administration officials decided not to continue the court battle. But that shouldn't mean the war is over.