Senate poised to vote on sweeping FDA tobacco rules

McClatchy NewspapersJune 7, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Sweeping changes in how the government controls tobacco content and marketing are likely to be approved by the U.S. Senate this week, despite a strong last-ditch effort by tobacco interests and skepticism from some experts that smokers won't kick their habit.

The bill, passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives in April and due for a Senate vote as early as Tuesday, would give the Food and Drug Administration broad new authority over tobacco.

"It's a massive move in public policy," said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.

The bill would permit the FDA to limit the amount of nicotine in a product, bar advertising and marketing aimed at children and prevent companies from making unsubstantiated claims about "reduced risk" items.

Anti-smoking activists are ecstatic, predicting that if the new law is rigorously enforced, "all the evidence is it will prompt more people to quit rather than switching to low-tar cigarettes or other tobacco products as has happened in the past," said Matthew Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Not everyone is convinced.

"The FDA is going to be giving approval of cigarettes. I think there's really going to be a public perception that cigarettes are now safer," said Michael Siegel, professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health.

"I think there's going to be a public perception that there's now a safer product. And it's not going to be a safer product," Siegel said.

This debate has been going on for decades.

In 1964, the Surgeon General concluded that smoking carried severe health risks, but under pressure from tobacco interests, lawmakers the next year approved what anti-smoking interests saw as tepid health warning labels on cigarettes.

Little by little, other measures were adopted: A ban on television advertising in 1971, stronger warning labels in 1984 and so on. The effort staggered in 2000, however, when the Supreme Court narrowly ruled that the FDA lacked authority to regulate tobacco.

This year, with a strong Democratic congressional majority and a sympathetic president, anti-tobacco activists made their crusade a priority.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who has led the Senate anti-tobacco fight, described the goal: "It's time for the tobacco industry to come up with a new business model — and this bill will force them to."

In the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to cut off debate, progress has been difficult. Lawmakers are scheduled to vote to limit debate Monday evening. If that effort succeeds, swift passage should follow

If the bill becomes law, the FDA would set up a new tobacco division, hire scientists, write regulations and collect fees from tobacco companies. Consumers would first see changes in packaging.

Warning labels would be larger, covering half the package, and more graphic. Eventually they could include pictures.

Cigarettes could no longer be labeled "light" or "low-tar." So although Marlboro Lights and Camel Lights could still be sold, they'd have different names or new packaging.

Once the FDA begins regulating content, the chemical makeup of cigarettes could change too, affecting both their taste and, some hope, their health impacts.

Cigarettes could no longer have a "characterizing" flavor other than menthol, though companies could still inject flavors as part of their blends. Reynolds American, for example, includes such ingredients as brown sugar, cinnamon, patchouli oil, and rosemary in its products.

And prices would go up, as tobacco companies pass along the government's "user fees" to consumers.

Critics contend that tobacco should not be part of the FDA's mission.

"When the FDA approves a product, Americans expect the product to be safe," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, "but as we all know, there is no such thing as a safe cigarette."

The bill's opponents are also concerned that the changes could prove costly in tobacco-growing states such as Kentucky and North Carolina.

Nationwide, tobacco manufacturing employs about 21,000 people with an average annual wage of $47,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Tobacco brought in $686 million in receipts to North Carolina last year, the top cash crop in the state, and tobacco farmers from North Carolina last week roamed Capitol Hill in their Sunday best, visiting aides to Southern senators and hoping for good feedback. They weren't encouraged.

"Oh no, we're not having that kind of impact," said Pender Sharp, who grows 500 acres in Wilson, N.C. "We just want to put a face to the bill they're voting on, and talk about the impacts in the community."

At the Capitol, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., spent more than five hours during debate putting up charts and explaining why the FDA ought not to regulate tobacco.

"The FDA is struggling today, "he said. "The biggest mistake we could make is to give them another product and say, regulate this, and don't regulate it based upon the same standards you do everything else."

Tobacco defenders, however, are up against some emotional pleas, as senators put up posters of cancer patients, talk about deceased parents and offer personal testimony about their own experiences.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., for instance, explained during Senate debate why the FDA should be permitted to aggressively put curbs on children's access to tobacco.

He recalled how he was once a smoker, but then "one night after dinner, my third daughter, who was about 7 or 8, said daddy, why are you smoking? I said, well, because it makes me feel relaxed."

His daughter peered at him and, according to Lautenberg, said, "Daddy, today in school we learned that if you smoke, you get a black box in your throat.

"She said, 'I love you and I don't want you to have a black box in your throat.' Within days I had my last cigarette."

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