Government Surveillance Center to Monitor Tobacco Industry

The recent establishment of the Center for Rapid Surveillance of Tobacco (CRST), funded by the FDA and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), should raise concerns for retailers, manufacturers, and consumers alike. While the intention behind the CRST is to enhance the understanding of changes in the tobacco product marketplace and tobacco use patterns, this big government initiative conjures up images of a surveillance agency out of Orwell’s 1984

On whom is this center going to be collecting the information? Manufacturers? Retailers? Adult consumers? This is a perfect example of an unelected and unaccountable program, funded by taxpayers to the tune of $18 million and reaching beyond anything Congress ever envisioned when they passed the Tobacco Control Act. 

The Center for Rapid Surveillance of Tobacco’s stated mission is to:

  • Collect information from marketing company databases, tobacco maker websites, social media, and merchant outlets to spot new marketing strategies
  • Analyze retail scanner data to track tobacco-product sales and spot trends involving new product characteristics such as innovative flavors or delivery mechanisms
  • Triangulate responses from surveys of youth, young adults, and adults who use tobacco and nicotine products to understand preferences and behaviors
  • Synthesize the data to identify meaningful trends early and provide the FDA with actionable information to improve its regulation of tobacco products.

Assembled as anti-tobacco champions, the employees aren’t “scientists” or “researchers” but “investigators!” 

“Nothing like this has ever been attempted before now,” said Cristine Delnevo, director of the Rutgers Center for Tobacco Studies and principal investigator of the rapid surveillance center. 

That may be because spying on small businesses doesn’t match the mission of the FDA. Every sale, marketing campaign, and new release will now be under “surveillance” by an intelligence unit with a direct line to enforcers and regulators at the FDA. 

“The [CRST’s] work is led by Rutgers Center of Excellence in Rapid Surveillance of Tobacco, with substantial involvement from a large collaborative network that triangulates multiple data sources, federal scientific staff at CDC, NIH, and CTP, as well as external advisors with relevant expertise.”  

Such a hasty endeavor is littered with technical concerns, including a lack of oversight, scientific process, and cohesion among those involved. Who are these external advisors now cashing in, and what systems are in place to ensure objectivity? Is it a coincidence that the FDA chose to locate the CRST in the Congressional District of anti-tobacco advocate Rep. Frank Pallone? Intelligence syndicates belong in James Bond films, not the government. FDA and NIH need to prioritize thorough research and engage in transparent and inclusive decision-making processes. 

Four months ago, the Reagan-Udall Foundation published its evaluation of the FDA Center for Tobacco Products. The message was clear, FDA needs to drop the political agenda and master the basics.  They should have the highest standards for objective research in order to earn the public trust. Unfortunately, CRST looks exactly like a government-funded tool to advance a political goal.  That should be cause for concern for every industry and individual that believes in free enterprise.


FDA Release – Click Here

Rutgers Release – Click Here