Obama pushes to clear the smoke

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President Obama is moving to cement a significant legacy in the fight against smoking.

Despite Obama’s own struggles with cigarettes, many public health advocates see him as a champion on the issue, and a series of proposals in the waning months of his presidency could bolster his record.

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Obama’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) last week proposed a smoking ban at public housing facilities. The move would prohibit smokers from lighting up inside government-subsidized homes and would affect close to a million units where smoking is currently allowed.

The regulations are part of a wide-ranging campaign undertaken by the Obama administration. From shepherding anti-smoking legislation through Congress early in his presidency to running advocacy campaigns aimed at helping smokers quit and raising tobacco taxes, the results are staggering, public health advocates say.

According to various figures from the Centers for Disease Control, the number of smokers has declined by roughly 10 million people during the Obama administration. Nearly 20 percent of adults smoked in 2007 compared to about 15 percent now.

While the decrease can’t be attributed entirely to his policies, public health advocates say Obama — who’s spoken openly about his efforts to quit for his family — should get some of the credit.

“Sometimes the people who have struggled to quit smoking like the president has are the ones who understand the dangers of smoking the best,” said Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Though they say Obama has taken major strides to reduce tobacco use around the country, the advocates say there is still work to be done before he leaves the White House.

“We’re in the eighth inning of a nine inning game,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president of advocacy at the American Lung Association.

The proposed smoking ban, which would protect hundreds of thousands of low-income families from breathing the secondhand smoke of their neighbors, still needs to be shepherded through the rulemaking process, advocates say.

It would block people from smoking cigarettes, cigars and pipes — not only in common areas and in administrative offices but also inside their own homes.

Under the smoking ban, state public housing agencies would have 18 months to implement smoke-free policies. Some have already adopted such policies, but many others have not.

The smoking ban is intended to protect young children and elderly people, who are the most vulnerable to the health effects of secondhand smoke, government officials said.

“We have a responsibility to protect public housing residents from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, especially the elderly and children who suffer form asthma and other respiratory diseases,” HUD Secretary Julián Castro said in a statement when the rule was released.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also working to complete controversial regulations for electronic cigarettes and cigars. The first-ever restrictions on the burgeoning e-cigarette industry, which had been scheduled to be finalized this past summer, were proposed in April 2014.

Public health groups, which warn e-cigarettes will attract children to smoking, are pressuring the Obama administration to finalize the rules immediately.

“There is no president that has a stronger legacy on tobacco control [than Obama],” Hansen said. 

“But that doesn’t mean we’re satisfied,” he added. “The e-cigarette regulations should’ve happened a long time ago. This has been really slow.”

Industry groups, meanwhile, say the devices could help wean existing smokers off more harmful traditional cigarettes and contend the rules would cripple the emerging industry.

Julie Woessner, president of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, said e-cigarettes are “99 percent less hazardous” than traditional cigarettes.

She called the e-cigarette regulations a “public health disaster.”

Industry groups say e-cigarettes could be more effective at helping smokers quit than products such as nicotine patches and gum.

“You’re talking about saving human lives,” said Cynthia Cabrera, president of the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association, which represents the e-cigarette, or vaping, industry.

“There will have been a missed opportunity to leave a legacy that could have helped millions of current cigarette smokers actually switch over to a product that has the potential to save their lives,” she added.

Aside from the e-cigarette regulations, public health advocates would like to see the Obama administration press forward with graphic warning labels on cigarette packages, intended to deter people from smoking.

The FDA’s original warning label rule was struck down in federal court in 2012, but advocates are calling on the agency to reissue a new version of the rule that would pass legal muster.

Advocates hailed the Obama administration’s negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as an example of the president’s fight against tobacco.

U.S. officials negotiated a provision that would make it difficult for tobacco companies to block smoking regulations around the world.

Public health advocates such as Hansen called the move “groundbreaking.”

“This has never been discussed before in trade agreements,” he said.

But the move is not without its risks. Some Republicans, particularly from tobacco producing states such as North Carolina, are threatening to oppose the TPP over the provisions, among a handful seen as jeopardizing passage of the sweeping trade deal.

Perhaps the biggest step taken under the Obama administration, advocates say, was the passage of the Family Smoking and Tobacco Control Act in 2009. The law gave the FDA authority to regulate additional tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and cigars, previously exempt from many of the rules that apply to conventional cigarettes.

The FDA has also taken steps to prohibit flavored cigars and deceptive marketing descriptions that suggested certain cigarettes were healthier than others because they are “light” or “mild.”

Meanwhile, ObamaCare included coverage for cessation devices to help smokers quit, advocates say.

“President Obama has been a bold and visionary leader in protecting America from the harmful effects of tobacco,” said American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown.

This story was corrected on Nov. 18 to attribute remarks to American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown.