WASHINGTON (AP) - The Senate struck a historic blow against
smoking in America Thursday, voting overwhelmingly to give
regulators new power to limit nicotine in the cigarettes that kill
nearly a half-million people a year, to drastically curtail ads
that glorify tobacco and to ban flavored products aimed at
spreading the habit to young people.
President Barack Obama, who has spoken of his own struggle to
quit smoking, said he was eager to sign the legislation, and the
House planned a vote for Friday. Cigarette foes said the measure
would not only cut deaths but reduce the $100 billion in annual
health care costs linked to tobacco.
Fierce opposition by the industry and tobacco-state lawmakers
had prevented passage for years, along with veto threats by the
George W. Bush White House. In the end, the nation's biggest
tobacco company supported the measure, though rivals suggested that
was because it could lock in Philip Morris' share of the market.
Cigarette smoking kills about 400,000 people in the United
States every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. About 45 million U.S. adults are smokers, though the
prevalence has fallen since the U.S. surgeon general's warning 45
years ago that tobacco causes lung cancer.
The legislation, one of the most dramatic anti-smoking
initiatives since the surgeon general's report, would give the Food
and Drug Administration authority to regulate the content,
marketing and advertising of cigarettes and other tobacco products.
"This legislation represents the strongest action Congress has
ever taken to reduce tobacco use, the leading preventable cause of
death in the United States," declared Matthew Myers, president of
Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids.
The 79-17 Senate vote sent the measure back to the House, which
in April passed a similar but not identical version. House
acceptance of the Senate bill would send it directly to Obama, who
said Thursday that final passage "will make history by giving the
scientists and medical experts at the FDA the power to take
"At any given moment, millions are struggling with their habit
or worrying about loved ones who smoke," said Obama.
His signature would then add tobacco to other huge, nationally
important areas that have come under greater government supervision
since his presidency began. Those include banking, housing and
autos. Still to come, if Congress can agree: health care.
Supporters of FDA regulation of tobacco have struggled for more
than a decade to overcome powerful resistance - from the industry
and elsewhere. In 2000 the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the agency
did not have the authority under current law to regulate tobacco
products, and the Bush administration opposed several previous
efforts by Congress to write a new law.
Thursday's legislation gives the FDA power to evaluate the
contents of tobacco products and to order changes or bans on those
that are a danger to public health. The agency could limit nicotine
yields but not ban nicotine or cigarettes.
Regulators could prohibit tobacco companies from using candy or
other flavors in cigarettes that tend to attract young smokers, and
restrict advertising in publications often read by teenagers. Rules
on sales to minors would be toughened, as would warning labels.
Tobacco companies would have to get FDA approval for new products,
and would be barred from using terms such as "light" or "mild"
that imply a smaller health risk.
Costs of the new program would be paid for through a fee imposed
on tobacco companies.
"This is a bill that will protect children and will protect
America," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a leading supporter.
"Every day that we don't act, 3,500 American kids - children -
will light up for the first time. That is enough to fill 70 school
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that FDA regulation
could reduce underage smoking by 11 percent over the next decade.
The bill, said American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown,
"provides a tremendous opportunity to finally hold tobacco
companies accountable and restrict efforts to addict more children
The tobacco lobby, contended Durbin, has long been the most
powerful lobby on Capitol Hill, "and they managed to create an
exemption in virtually every law so that no federal agency could
take a look at them and regulate them."
But the industry has also taken hits in recent years as the
dangers of smoking became more apparent and states moved to limit
smoking in public places. In 1998 the industry agreed to pay the
states $206 billion to help cover health care costs, and this year
Congress raised the federal cigarette tax by 62 cents, to $1.01 a
pack, to fund a health care program for children.
The nation's largest tobacco manufacturer, Philip Morris, USA,
has come out in support of the legislation. Its parent company,
Altria Group, said in a statement that on balance, "the
legislation is an important step forward to achieve the goal we
share with others to provide federal regulation of tobacco
Its main rivals, however, have voiced opposition, arguing in
part that FDA restrictions on new products will lock in Philip
Morris' share of the market.
Lawmakers portrayed the bill as a major first step in bringing
down health care costs, an essential goal of the health care
overhaul legislation that is the top priority of the Obama
administration this year.
"This bill may do more in the area of prevention, if adopted,
than anything else we may include in the health care bill in the
short term," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who managed the
legislation on the Senate floor in the absence of the ailing Sen.
Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who has long promoted FDA regulation.
Opponents, led by Republican Sen. Richard Burr of the
tobacco-growing state of North Carolina, argued that the FDA, which
is in charge of ensuring the safety of food and drug products, was
the wrong place to regulate an item that is injurious to health.
He also contended that the bill would restrict tobacco
companies, including several based in his state, from developing
new products that might be less harmful to users. He unsuccessfully
proposed the creation of a new agency that would both regulate
tobacco products and encourage efforts to make cigarettes less
The bill is H.R. 1256.
On the Net:
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)