Commentary: Burr a diehard defender of tobacco

June 8, 2009 

Up in Washington, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr is staging a slowdown on behalf of smoking, stalling a widely supported bill that would let the Food and Drug Administration regulate the tobacco industry.

Burr isn't given much chance of blocking what amounts to a sensible response to the ever-more-apparent reality that nicotine is an addictive drug and that smoking kills. But when the last of his charts has been carted off the Senate floor, the full 218-page bill read into the record and the World's Greatest Deliberative Body is thoroughly talked out – maybe 60 hours' worth of talk – Burr will have made his point.

And that point is, despite a world of evidence that smoking tobacco does immense harm, some North Carolina politicians still value the industry's health most of all.

In the Senate, it's a bipartisan point. Burr, the Republican from Winston-Salem (headquarters of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco) is joined in opposing the FDA bill by Democrat Kay Hagan of Greensboro (home to Lorillard Tobacco). Hagan is less outspoken, but she signed on to support the 65,000 North Carolinians who work in tobacco by proposing, with Burr, an inadequate alternative to giving the FDA power over the industry.

The two would create instead a new Federal Tobacco Regulatory Agency, in the Department of Health and Human Services. It would have some, but not all, of the duties and powers set out in the FDA bill. On balance it would be kinder to the companies.

And yet much of the talk from Burr and Hagan goes in an entirely different direction. Turns out, they're the FDA's biggest fans. They laud the agency's "core mission" of ensuring food and drug safety and note some of its conspicuous failures – tainted peanut butter, anyone? – to measure up to the task. Heaven forbid that the Congress should "stretch" the FDA even farther.

To read the complete editorial, visit The (Raleigh) News & Observer.

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