The June 11 passage of the FDA Tobacco Regulation Bill, which provides the U.S. government with extensive power to regulate tobacco products, is a major step for federal regulation of cigarette manufacturers. The bill provides the Food and Drug Administration with its most expansive authority over the tobacco industry to date: not only does it grant the FDA the power to dictate product ingredients and overrule new products, it compels tobacco companies to eliminate potentially misleading labels like "light" and "mild," regulate a product's ingredients and increase the size of the warning labels on cigarette packs. The tobacco industry is no stranger to regulation, however. Over the past half-century, cigarette manufacturers have found ways to successfully sell their product despite increasing advertising restrictions and will no doubt try to continue to do so in the face of this new legislation.
Before the hazardous health effects of smoking were widely known, cigarette companies were able to advertise largely regulation-free. The first tobacco advertisement in the United States ran in 1789 when what is now the Lorillard Tobacco Company promoted their snuff in a local New York newspaper. Manufacturing and transportation constraints limited the distribution of tobacco products (at that time, mostly snuff, cigars and pipe tobacco) to local markets and largely kept companies from exploring the benefits of branding. The first strong national tobacco brand didn't emerge until near the end of the Civil War, when both Union and Confederate soldiers in Durham, North Carolina raided a local farmer's tobacco crop while waiting for a surrender to be completed. After the war was over, these soldiers began writing to the farmer, Mr. John Green, requesting more; Green went on to establish the successful Bull Durham Tobacco Company.
By the late 19th century, two innovations had helped launch cigarette companies to national prominence. The first, a cigarette-making machine introduced in the 1880s, dramatically increased production; instead of producing some 40,000 hand-rolled cigarettes a day, a company with one of these machines could produce 4 million cigarettes daily. The second development came in the late 1870s with the invention of color lithography, which revolutionized advertising and packaging and helped developing brands strengthen their identities. Using this new technology, companies began including small cigarette cards in every box as premiums. These collectible trading cards depicted movie stars, famous athletes and even Native American chiefs. While they were eventually discontinued to save paper during World War II, some of the rarer cards, like former Pittsburgh Pirate Honus Wagner, still sell for more than $2 million today.
During World War II, soldiers were issued with free cigarettes, courtesy of the tobacco companies; with millions of nicotine-addicted G.I.s returning home after the war, the still largely unregulated tobacco industry aggressively promoted cigarettes throughout the 1950s. Companies sought to distinguish their brands with popular slogans like "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should," "Light up a Lucky," and "For more pure pleasure, have a Camel!" Many cigarette makers also sponsored television shows when Winston's ad introduced the long-running CBS Western Gunsmoke, "cigarette" was replaced in their slogan by the sound of two gunshots. For tobacco companies, it was the Golden Age: cigarette ads featured endorsements from dentists, doctors, babies and even Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle. Growing evidence of a link between smoking and lung cancer eventually led manufacturers to introduce cigarette filters and while it was eventually revealed that filtered cigarettes were no safer than their regular counterparts, that didn't stop them from being advertised as lower in tar and nicotine.
Increasing public scrutiny of the tobacco industry finally came to a head in 1964 when the U.S. Surgeon General, Luther Terry, released his Advisory Committee Report on Smoking and Health. The staggeringly comprehensive report was based on more than 7,000 scientific studies linking smoking with lung cancer, emphysema and other diseases. The report led a surge in restrictive legislation, including mandatory warning labels on packages and a ban on advertising on radio or television. Tobacco companies in return simply changed strategy, advertising to younger markets with candy cigarettes and mascots like Joe Camel whom a 1991 study found was more recognizable among 5 and 6 year olds than Mickey Mouse. By labeling cigarettes as an "addictive drug" in 1996, the FDA sought to gain control over the industry and limit the sales and advertising of tobacco products. While its actions were supported by then President Bill Clinton, the Supreme Court ruled against the FDA in 2000, claiming the federal agency was never given the proper authority to regulate tobacco by Congress.
Once the new bill becomes law, the FDA will have the regulatory power over the tobacco industry that has eluded them over the past two decades. Among the new restrictions are a ban on tobacco advertising within 1,000 ft. of schools and playgrounds, a requirement that warning labels cover 50 percent of the front and back of cigarette packs and the end of sweetened and spice-flavored cigarettes. President Obama (who has struggled with his own nicotine addiction) lauded the bill, saying in a statement that its passage "truly defines change in Washington." He is expected to sign it into law in the coming week.