Obama signs law on tobacco products

McClatchy NewspapersJune 22, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, who still struggles with his own addiction to cigarettes, on Monday signed into law the most sweeping federal anti-tobacco legislation to pass Congress in decades.

The law gives the Food and Drug Administration broad authority to regulate the marketing and manufacture of tobacco products. It bans fruit- and spice-flavored cigarettes, slaps expansive new warnings on packages and gets rid of the monikers "light" and "low-tar."

It also allows the FDA to order manufacturers to reduce — though not eliminate — the amount of the addictive chemical nicotine that's in cigarettes.

With children onstage and sprinkled in the audience at the Rose Garden ceremony, and with the new playground for the presidential daughters in the distance, Obama said that the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act would curtail the "constant, insidious" advertising that tobacco companies targeted at children.

He pointed out that nearly 90 percent of smokers start before age 18.

"I know; I was one of those teenagers," Obama said in his speech. "I know how hard it is to break the habit once you've started."

Tobacco-related diseases cost an estimated $100 billion a year to treat and kill nearly 400,000 Americans annually.

"FDA oversight over tobacco products will fundamentally change the entire tobacco industry and will save countless lives in the decades to come," said Stephen J. Nolan, the chairman of the American Lung Association's board of directors.

Among those at the White House on Monday was Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat from Wilson, N.C., where auctioneers used to rattle off leaf prices after harvest each fall. He represents one of the heaviest tobacco-farming districts in the nation.

"This has been a very difficult issue for me," Butterfield said. "But when I take a step back and look at it objectively, there's no question we need to reduce smoking. . . . We need to be realistic about the issue."

Also present was Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., one of the measure's primary proponents, but another prominent backer, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who's undergoing treatment for brain cancer, was not.

"Decade after decade, Big Tobacco has seduced millions of teenagers into lifetimes of addiction and premature death," Kennedy said in a statement. "Enactment of this legislation will finally put a stop to that. It is truly a lifesaving act, and a welcome demonstration that this Congress is capable of enacting major health reform."

Tobacco companies spent millions opposing the bill, though the country's top tobacco company, Altria, the owner of Philip Morris of Virginia, supported it in what opponents labeled a cynical move to use the measure's restrictions on advertising to maintain the market dominance of Philip Morris' leading brand, Marlboro.

In a sign of tobacco's waning power, however, the legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, even as a Gallup Poll released Monday found that 52 percent opposed the law, while 46 percent approved. The telephone survey was conducted June 14-17 and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Sens. Richard Burr, a Republican, and Kay Hagan, a Democrat, both of North Carolina, fought the legislation fiercely.

Burr, whose hometown of Winston-Salem is the headquarters for the Reynolds American tobacco company, stretched debate on the Senate floor to nearly two weeks in an effort to slow the bill. He argued that the FDA was ill-equipped to handle new regulatory duties.

Hagan, whose hometown of Greensboro is home to the Lorillard tobacco company, was the only Democrat in the Senate who voted against the bill. She argued that it would cost manufacturing jobs and hurt tobacco farmers.

Obama and other supporters said that the law was a victory over the deceit and power of tobacco companies' lobby on Capitol Hill.

"Since at least the middle of the last century, we've known about the harmful and often deadly effects of tobacco products," the president said.

Earlier this month, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs acknowledged that the president continues his personal fight against cigarettes. However, Obama ignored a question from the press gallery Monday as he was shaking visitors' hands after the ceremony.

"Mr. President, how difficult has your struggle been with smoking?" CNN's Dan Lothian asked.

Obama glanced up, then turned away.

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