Senate Votes for FDA to Regulate Tobacco

"The legislation passed today is not perfect," Altria said in a statement. "For example, we have expressed First Amendment reservations about certain provisions, including those that could restrict a manufacturer's ability to communicate truthful information to adult consumers about tobacco products. We also believe that the resolution of certain issues would best be handled by rulemaking processes that involve sound scientific data and public participation."

"On balance, however, the legislation is an important step forward to achieve the goal we share with others to provide federal regulation of tobacco products." 

Despite the popularity of this bill, senators from tobacco states used every bit of time they could to delay a vote.

Many floor speeches this week have concentrated on votes senators took 20 years and more ago. They barely passed -- by one vote -- the ban on smoking on airplane flights.

The Politics of Smoking

Tobacco products may be more deadly than ever. Even Obama has said it's been a challenge to quit.

But according to current federal law, the Food and Drug Administration has not had the power to regulate cigarettes, despite repeated efforts to grant it that authority.

"Tobacco products are unlike any other products on the market in that they are unusually lethal, but yet not highly regulated," FDA Commissioner Margaret "Peggy" Hamburg told the Senate panel May 7 as lawmakers were considering her nomination for the job.

Still, some lawmakers who oppose the legislation say the FDA may not be up to the task. Others have said oversight over tobacco goes against the agency's mission to protect the public health.

"How does the FDA regulate a product that is neither safe nor beneficial to public health?" Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked Hamburg at her confirmation hearing. "If the tobacco legislation becomes law, how does the FDA intend to obtain the necessary resources in order to carry out this responsibility, especially when it lacks the resource to conduct its current responsibilities?"

Hamburg said the FDA should take on the responsibility and would rely on user fees from the tobacco industry, called for in the bill, to fund the effort.

"I think that the FDA is the appropriate agency to regulate tobacco," she said. "It has the scientific expertise, the regulatory experience and the public health mission to do so. And I think that if done sucessfully, we can reduce smoking and we can help to make cigarettes less harmful."

Whether to give the federal government the power to regulate smoking is not a new fight on Capitol Hill.

In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled the FDA could not regulate tobacco according to current law. Many lawmakers and anti-smoking groups have been trying to change the law since.

In late May, when the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel was mulling over the measure, Dodd highlighted the more than 1,000 organizations that support the measure and said Congress was finally "on the cusp of winning this fight." He added that growing up with two parents who smoked, and as a smoker once himself, "I know how addictive it can be."

Republican Mike Enzi of Wyoming likewise touched on his family's personal struggle with smoking, calling tobacco "the only consumer product which, when used as directed, kills its customers."

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