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New Law Nixes Tobacco Shipments by Mail

Booking photo of Jamie A. Kuhne, December 11, 2009 he was arrested after telling police he strangled his wife and stuffed her in a suitcase.(Herndon Police Department)
Herndon Police Department
Savvy smokers and other tobacco users have long known a secret to getting their tobacco on the cheap: buy through the mail. Ordering from tobacco-producing southern states with plenty of supply and low taxes - or from tax-free Indian reservations - offered a steep discount to store prices.

But no more. A law taking effect June 29 will ban most tobacco products from being delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, closing a loophole that the government considered a tax dodge and a way for young people to skirt age restrictions.

The law, Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act was signed into law March 31, part of a growing regulatory crackdown on tobacco under President Barack Obama that has included bans on flavored cigarettes (except for menthols) and on cigarettes labeled as "light," as well as a broader Food and Drug Administration review that is expected to last years, but may result in sweeping new rules.

The mailing ban will extend to cigarettes, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco. It does not include cigars.

There are a few exceptions. Shipments entirely within Alaska and Hawaii can continue. So can packages sent between tobacco businesses.

The "light" cigarettes rule also takes effect this month. The FDA ruled that cigarette packs can no longer feature names such as "light," "mild," "medium" or "low," which many smokers wrongly think are less harmful than "full-flavor" cigarettes.

Cigarette makers are replacing those words with colors such as gold, silver, blue and orange on brands that make up more than half of the smokes sold across the country.

Studies show that about 90 percent of smokers and nonsmokers believe that cigarettes described as "light" or have certain colors on the packages are less harmful even though "all commercial cigarettes are equally lethal," said David Hammond, a health behavior researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Still, a year after a new law put tobacco regulation in the hands of the FDA, one thing is clear: It will likely be years before any of the most aggressive steps to reduce deaths from smoking might happen.

When President Barack Obama signed the bill into law last June, anti-tobacco advocates suggested it could lead to a reduction in nicotine levels, a ban on menthol cigarettes or other aggressive moves.

Such moves are still a long way down the road as the FDA takes its time assessing the scientific evidence for what would best improve public health. That leaves the future of the industry and effects on both companies and consumers under a cloud of smoke.

But for public health experts, one thing is clear - more needs to be done to snuff out the death and disease caused by cigarettes and other tobacco products, and stop people from using them in the first place.

In a short period, the FDA has made real progress that will begin to have a meaningful health impact, said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

While the law doesn't let the FDA ban nicotine or tobacco outright, the agency could lower nicotine to non-addictive levels. And that's exactly what former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, who championed the anti-tobacco public health movement, wants to see happen.

"The tobacco industry knew 40 years ago that there was a threshold below which people would quit," Kessler said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Reducing the level of nicotine in cigarettes will change cigarette smoking as we know it. It is the ultimate harm reduction strategy."

Most smokers ingest between 1 to 3 milligrams of nicotine per cigarette. Kessler suggests that the FDA lower that number to between 1 and .5 milligrams.

While some will argue such a proposal is akin to prohibition, making cigarettes less addictive would reduce the vast majority of the more than 400,000 deaths per year from smoking in the U.S., Kessler said.

"It is now time to reverse the trajectory of smoking initiation, sustained addiction and premature death," he said. "Ultimately the agency's success needs to be measured in terms of the number of people who smoke and the number of kids who start."

Kessler's suggestion to make tobacco less addictive deserves "serious consideration," said the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids' Myers.

There are two approaches to regulating tobacco use: one that says there's no safe way to use tobacco and pushes for people to quit above all else. Others embrace the idea that lower-risk alternatives like smokeless tobacco and other nicotine delivery systems like gum or even electronic cigarettes can help improve overall health.

The law lays out the possibility for both, prescribing a scientific approach to improve public health, said Dr. Lawrence Deyton, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products.

"There's multiple strategies the FDA will be considering," Deyton said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We certainly have not made any determination on one side or another."

Deyton did not say whether Kessler's suggestion would become a reality, but said the law does allow the FDA to set nicotine levels.

No matter the approach, Deyton said he wants Americans to trust what the agency's work on tobacco.

"We now get the opportunity to speak the truth about tobacco products and do so in a reasonable way," Deyton said. "We will not do it as zealots, we will not do it as aggressive government. We will do it in a methodical, reasonable way."