Senate Votes for FDA to Regulate Tobacco

Years in the making, Senate votes to give FDA power to regulate tobacco.

June 11, 2009, 12:26 PM

June 11, 2009— -- Times have changed now that even tobacco states have smoking bans. Today, after two weeks of wrangling and a decade of considering the change, the U.S. Senate endorsed increased regulation of tobacco.

Senators voted 79-17 to regulate tobacco in the same way the government regulates everything else you put in your body -- from Froot Loops to aspirin.

Watch "World News With Charles Gibson" tonight at 6:30 ET for the full report.

At Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, organization president Matthew L. Myers called the vote "a truly historic victory" and "the strongest action Congress has ever taken to reduce tobacco use."

"Forty-five years after the first U.S. Surgeon General's report linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer, the most deadly product sold in America will no longer be the least-regulated product sold in America," Myers said in a statement.

The bill would give the federal government the power to regulate cigarette ingredients, to ban the marketing of "light cigarettes" and to require graphic warning labels.

Newfound authority over tobacco would mean the FDA could hold cigarette manufacturers to the same standards for quality control and marketing as 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.

It's a huge move that's been a long time coming.

"We have tried for ten years and we have failed," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., in a speech on the Senate floor earlier this month when the Senate voted to break a filibuster and consider the legislation. "Think what kind of a difference we could have made. How many lives we would have saved if we passed this ten years ago."

The House already passed its version of the bill in April, so it will go the president as soon as the chambers iron out the differences.

"This legislation is a key part of our plans to cut health care costs and reduce the number of Americans who smoke," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. "I hope the House will act quickly and approve this legislation."

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

Obama released a statement today saying, "I look forward to signing this bill into law, and to working with HHS Secretary Sebelius and FDA Commissioner Hamburg on its implementation."

Big tobacco has already been readying itself for a tougher U.S. regulatory environment by expanding its overseas marketing and developing new smokeless products.

Not surprisingly, most of the tobacco industry has opposed the bill. But there are also major exceptions to that rule. The giant Altria, parent company of Philip Morris, has taken an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach and supports the measure, though some complain they've managed to water down the bill.

"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."

The effort, spearheaded by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in the Senate and Calif. Democrat Henry Waxman in the House, would give the FDA the power to decide how cigarettes are advertised and authority to monitor how they're promoted to youth. It would not have the power to ban cigarettes and nicotine outright.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 440,000 people die prematurely from smoking each year, with an estimated 49,000 of those deaths due to secondhand smoke exposure.

"This legislation provides a tremendous opportunity to finally hold tobacco companies accountable and restrict efforts to addict more children and adults," American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown said in a statement. "It has been a long and challenging process to move the bill through Congress but the determination of many concerned parents and supporters has never wavered. The Senate vote is a significant victory for all Americans as we try to reduce the devastating toll tobacco use has inflicted on our communities."

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