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The question is no longer whether or not tobacco should be regulated as the addictive, dangerous drug that it is. Rather, the only question is when Washington is going to summon up the grit and gumption to take this long-overdue step?

If that point was not obvious before, it should be unmistakably clear from some findings reported this week by the drug abuse advisory committee of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.The advisory panel concluded that a nasal spray containing nicotine is as potentially addictive as FDA-regulated cough medicines containing codeine. Smokers who used the nicotine nasal spray to wean themselves off cigarettes also had difficulty stopping use of the spray.

This finding can hardly be surprising since the American Medical Association long ago concluded that cigarettes are addictive because of the nicotine in tobacco.

If the word of the medical profession isn't good enough, just ask those who know firsthand what addiction is all about. Among heroin addicts, the New York Times reported this week, 38 percent rank the urge to smoke tobacco as equal to or stronger than the urge to take heroin. Among those addicted to alcohol, about 50 percent say the urge to smoke tobacco is at least as strong as the urge to drink.

Since the FDA already regulates nicotine in smoking-cessation products, it's only logical for the agency also to regulate nasal sprays and any other product containing tobacco for human consumption, including cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco.

At this point, the objective is not to outlaw tobacco but simply to enable the FDA to exercise enough control over cigarettes to keep them out of the hands of minors.

The FDA, however, can't act without permission from Congress. This situation raises a pointed question: Which matters most to this nation's lawmakers - the health of their constituents or the hefty campaign contributions some of them keep getting from the powerful tobacco lobby?