Tobacco firms plead case at White House

Tobacco companies, electronic cigarette firms and cigar trade groups have been lobbying the White House about a potential change to the way regulators oversee a range of tobacco products.

The White House budget office’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) hosted five separate meetings with a number of lobbyists and advocates in November, according to meeting records.

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In the sessions, industry representatives pushed back against the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) effort to expand its oversight beyond traditional cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

Supporters want the new rule to crack down on marketing and sales practices by e-cigarette and cigar companies that they say pose public health problems and can be appealing to children.

Opponents of the potential rule fear that the FDA will come down too harshly and effectively kill off small businesses that sell cigars and e-cigarettes. Those products aren’t like traditional cigarettes, they say, so they shouldn’t be treated as if they are.

Electronic cigarettes, which release a vapor different from cigarette smoke, can help halt the nationwide smoking epidemic that leads to the deaths of an estimated 440,000 people each year, according to the e-cigarette manufacturer NJOY. 

“E-cigarettes are a desperately needed new approach to stopping tobacco smoking” five executives wrote in a presentation provided for a Nov. 7 meeting with the FDA, OIRA and other White House officials. 

“If we are serious about reducing spiraling health care costs, there is no better way to have a dramatic and near term impact than fostering e-cigarette use,” they added. “The endgame is to make tobacco cigarettes obsolete.”

The NJOY presentation made a case for “appropriate” regulation that would not ban TV advertisements or require e-cigarettes to be sold behind store counters alongside cigarettes.

Officials from Dosal Tobacco, the Council of Independent Tobacco Manufacturers of America, International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers, Cigar Rights of America, Drew Estate Cigars and the cigarette manufacturer S&M Brands also met with administration officials throughout the month, according to the records. The most recent meeting occurred on Nov. 25.

The FDA’s draft regulation is currently under an interagency review at OIRA. The Obama administration has indicated that it will release the proposal to the public in December.

OIRA routinely hosts meetings with industry groups and other stakeholders while it reviews new regulations. The events are typically one-sided; representatives from businesses and other organizations make their cases, but rarely do administration officials give clues to reveal the expected contents of the pending regulation.

The $2 billion e-cigarette industry’s lobbying presence in Washington has grown in recent weeks and months ahead of the expected FDA regulation. 

E-cigarette and cigar advocates sometimes paint theirs as a David and Goliath tale. Major tobacco giants like Altria, which sells an electronic cigarette brand of its own, back the FDA’s effort to expand its oversight.

Public health organizations support new fees and regulations for the different forms of tobacco, which they say are necessary to protect children and discourage misleading claims about their safety.