Tobacco Bill Gives FDA New Power

Heading to Obama's desk: Historic bill giving FDA authority to regulate tobacco.

ByABC News
June 12, 2009, 12:26 PM

June 12, 2009— -- A tobacco bill nearly a decade in the making is heading to President Barack Obama's desk after clearing its final hurdle today on Capitol Hill.

The House passed a measure to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco, confirming the Senate's decision Thursday.

Moments after the House voted 307-97 to pass the bill, Obama expressed his support for the measure. It's a departure from President Bush, who suggested he would veto legislation to give the FDA authority over tobacco.

"After a decade of opposition, all of us are finally about to achieve the victory with this bill, a bill that truly defines change in Washington," Obama said in the Rose Garden.

Times have changed now that even tobacco states have smoking bans.

The bill gives the FDA authority to regulate tobacco in the same way the government regulates everything else Americans put in their bodies -- from Froot Loops to aspirin.

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 gives 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 means the FDA could hold cigarette manufacturers to the same standards for quality control and marketing as makers of breakfast cereals and pharmaceuticals. It also moves to reduce nicotine levels and harmful chemicals in cigarettes.

And it means cigarette makers will be required to include new, larger warning graphics with more health information on their products and will 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 10 years and we have failed," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said in a speech on the Senate floor earlier this month when the body 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 10 years ago."

Others were equally excited. "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.

Big the tobacco industry 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, although some complain they've managed to water down the bill.

"The legislation passed today is not perfect," Altria said in a Thursday statement after the Senate voted on the measure. "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." 

Several people have high hopes for the implications of the measure.

At the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, CEO John R. Seffrin said in a Thursday statement that the measure "will finally put an end to Big Tobacco's despicable marketing practices that are designed to addict children to its deadly 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.