Should FDA Have the Power to Regulate Tobacco?

Senate panel considers bill to give FDA power to regulate tobacco.

ByABC News
May 19, 2009, 12:26 PM

May 19, 2009— -- Smokes may be more deadly than ever. Even President Obama has said it's been a challenge to quit.

But according to federal law, the Food and Drug Administration does not have the power to regulate cigarettes, despite repeated efforts to grant it this authority.

That could soon change if legislation now before a Senate panel makes headway on Capitol Hill.

"Over the years, this bill has been reviewed and vetted and debated over and over and over again," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said at today's meeting of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee. "I think all of us believe the time has come to act."

The panel started considering a bill today that would give the FDA authority to regulate tobacco just as it already has for food and drugs. With dozens of amendments to wade through, the committee will continue Wednesday afternoon.

Newfound authority over tobacco would mean the FDA could hold cigarette manufacturers to the same standards for quality control and marketing that it holds makers of breakfast cereals and pharmaceuticals. It could also move to reduce nicotine levels and harmful chemicals in cigarettes.

And it could mean cigarette makers would be required to include new, larger warning graphics with more health information on their products and would be prohibited from using words like "light" and "low tar" in their marketing.

The effort introduced on both sides of the Hill -- by Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in the Senate and Calif. Democrat Henry Waxman in the House -- would also give the FDA the power to decide how cigarettes are advertised and authority to monitor how they're promoted to youth.

The legislation would not have the power to ban cigarettes and nicotine outright.

"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.

"One can never count on anything in the United States Senate," Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told today. "But this is a bill that has been around for a long time -- whose support has increased with every Congress -- and includes senior respected Republicans among its supporters."

Still, it won't be easy to overcome resistance to the measure.

"Our hope is that the Senate HELP committee will resist all of those efforts to weaken the legislation," Myers added today.

A similar measure was passed last month by the full House. If passed by the Senate panel and then the full chamber, the House and Senate would work to iron out the differences before sending it to the White House for Obama's signature.

Unlike former President Bush, who suggested he'd veto legislation to give the FDA authority over tobacco, Obama has said he supports it.