WASHINGTON — U.S. senators began debate Tuesday on historic legislation to allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate cigarettes – an idea that has the strong backing of public health advocates across the country.
Standing in their way on Tuesday were the two senators from North Carolina.
Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Kay Hagan teamed up for the first significant issue in their short time together in the Senate, offering arguments to weaken the effects of a popular bill that, they fear, could decimate a historic industry in their state.
North Carolina is the nation’s top producer of tobacco, growing $686 million worth of leaf last year on 12,000 farms. The state’s tobacco manufacturers, from the behemoth R.J. Reynolds to tiny boutique companies, put 10,000 people to work.
The economic impact, Hagan told committee members, amounts to $7 billion.
“The bill before us today is going to further devastate the economy in North Carolina and put thousands of people out of work,” she said.
The effort by North Carolina’s senators to protect tobacco came, coincidentally, on the same day that N.C. Gov. Beverly Perdue signed into law a sweeping ban on smoking in most bars and restaurants in the state.
Perdue, a Democrat, signed the bill in the old House chamber in the state Capitol as more than 125 state lawmakers and others cheered.
Perdue called it “an absolutely historic day for this great state that was built initially on the backbone of tobacco.”
The smoking ban takes effect in January and applies to the inside portions of nearly all bars and restaurants. There are narrow exceptions for cigar bars, and private clubs such as country clubs and VFW halls.
Tuesday was the first meeting of the Senate health committee to discuss details of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, championed by Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. Committee discussion and approval, called a mark-up, will continue Wednesday and possibly into Thursday. From there, the bill goes to the Senate floor.
The bill could have sweeping impact on tobacco companies, the marketing of their products. One of every five Americans uses tobacco, and smoking-related disease kills nearly half a million a year – more than any other preventable cause of death.
The bill would require companies to register their products and ingredient breakdowns with the FDA. It would allow the agency to limit the amount of harmful products, though not wipe out entirely addictive ingredients such as nicotine.
It also aims to reduce childhood smoking – banning candy-flavored tobacco products, ending advertising near schools and playgrounds, sending vending machines to adult-only establishments and plastering larger warnings across packs of tobacco.
Backers say the advertising restrictions aimed at youth are critical. Ninety percent of smoking adults began as children, and more than 3,000 children try their first cigarette each day.
“From a moral sense, I don’t understand people who manufacture products which kill people,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent.
Tobacco opponents came armed with props. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, put up a chart showing the sleek pink-and-black packaging of Camel No. 9’s, a sleek cigarette stamped with a pink camel. The cigarette was handed out free at bars around N.C. State University when it launched two years ago and is advertised in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Glamour that target young women.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, criticized “dissolvable tobacco,” a sweet-tasting melt-in-your-mouth lozenge that contains nicotine. A type called “Orbs,” sold in packages shaped as cell phones, is being test-marketed in his state.
“The best marketers are the people who make Camel,” Brown said. “They beat the sheriff.”
Orbs and Camel No. 9’s are products of R.J. Reynolds of Winston-Salem, N.C.
Burr, a Winston-Salem resident, didn’t speak until nearly an hour into the hearing, passing on an opening statement with a shake of his head and only raising his voice -- very quietly -- during a discussion of an amendment on putting tobacco regulation not in the FDA, but in the Centers for Disease Control.
“Mr. Chairman,” Burr began.
The room rustled and heads craned. Burr is Kennedy’s top opponent on the bill.
Burr spoke for 10 full minutes. He talked about the shortcomings of the FDA, how it has struggled against salmonella. He raised the specter of swine flu and said the agency could get distracted during a pandemic.
“I’m up here defending the FDA right now, not tobacco companies, not tobacco farmers,” Burr said.
And he issued a warning, hinting at the filibuster he has threatened in the past to shut down debate on the Senate floor.
“I put my colleagues on notice,” Burr said. “This is something that will be carried a much longer time on the floor than it will in this hearing.”
(Such a filibuster would be tough to sustain, given Democrats’ potential 60-vote support in the Senate.)
Burr fought back further as his colleagues criticized tobacco companies. He accused the FDA of falling short on investigations into food-borne illnesses: “You’re recommending turning regulation of tobacco over to an agency that has a track record of killing Americans,” he said.
And he practically challenged tobacco opponents to a duel: “If you want to outlaw tobacco, I’m happy to offer that amendment. … If you want to deprive adults of their choice, that’s fine. But let’s have a go at it.”
But though Burr’s and Hagan’s legislative staffs have been talking daily, Burr declined to offer any of the amendments he had in his pocket.
On Wednesday, Burr may put forward his own alternative bill, co-sponsored by Hagan, that would create a new agency for tobacco regulation – without many of the restrictions in the Kennedy bill. He will wait on his other ideas. Those include amendments on setting health standards for cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, and an amendment that addresses some advertising restrictions.
Hagan offered two amendments. The first would keep the FDA from forcing manufacturers to make changes that might impact leaf growers. The second would clarify that the FDA cannot directly or indirectly regulate tobacco growers or the leaf itself.
Both brought a flurry of opposition, and she withdrew them before the committee could vote.
After the meeting, Hagan circled the table to the Republican side and leaned over to speak into Burr’s ear about the amendments.
She may bring them back up, she said afterward. “We’ll wait to see.”
Staff writer Benjamin Niolet contributed to this report.