The public has only a couple of weeks to tell the Food and Drug Administration what it thinks about the proposed plan to regulate all tobacco products, including cigars, electronic cigarettes, hookah tobacco and nicotine gels.

Of the more than 58,000 comments collected so far, health advocates say the FDA is hearing overwhelmingly from the tobacco industry and tobacco users – and not enough from individuals or groups who want the FDA to adopt the rule and go further, banning candy and fruit flavorings that attract children and to restrict marketing to youth.

“The tobacco industry has mobilized their customers. They have a massive number of people contacting the FDA,” said Susan K. Bishop, the American Heart Association’s lobbyist following the issue. “We need to have supporters of the rule and those concerned with public health weigh in to combat all the negative comments the FDA is receiving.”

The rule would require manufacturers to register with the FDA, disclose ingredient lists for their products and include warning labels on product packages and advertisements, as well as prohibit the sale of these products to anyone under the age of 18 and prohibit the distribution of free samples.

The Campaign For Tobacco Free Kids said in a recent alert to its supporters that tobacco industry comments, which are available for viewing online, were outpacing support for the regulations by 20 to 1.

The American Heart Association has begun a campaign to collect letters of support  that will end Aug. 4. AHA will deliver the letters to the FDA by the Aug. 8 deadline, said Amy Shope Manzi, a grassroots advocacy consultant for the AHA.

When the comment period closes, the FDA will read every comment it receives and determine what changes, if any, they will make to the regulation. “The FDA will look for substantive comments and how people are coming down on the issues,” Bishop said. “While it’s not a majority vote situation, it does matter how many people weigh in. We need more comments that say ‘don’t exempt premium cigars and e-cigarettes; don’t allow candy flavorings and marketing to kids’.”

About 17 percent of high school boys now smoke cigars, and the number of middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes, which often are marketed with flavorings, more than doubled in one year.

It has taken the FDA three years to issue its proposed rule, and while the agency likely will take months to mull over the comments, the AHA and its public health partners are pushing to have the new rule finalized by April.

The tobacco industry already has made inroads. An article by Reuters last month showed how members of the Obama Administration watered down some of the provisions in the proposed rule before it was ever released.

“In an unusual move, the FDA published their original draft of the rules online,” Bishop said. “There were changes made, changes in the industry’s favor. We know they have already had an impact and we are trying to stop that impact now.”

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Photo by Amie Vanderford