Tobacco Bill Gives FDA New Power

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

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.

The Politics of Smoking

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

But, according to 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 of 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 successfully, 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 California Democrat Henry Waxman in the House, gives the FDA the power to decide how cigarettes are advertised and authority to monitor how they're promoted to youth. It does 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."

ABC News' Dean Norland contributed to this report.

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