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Hearings set on giving FDA greater role in regulating tobacco

RALEIGH, N.C.—R.J. Reynolds' new Camel No. 9's arrived this month in a black package trimmed in fuchsia, the slim cigarettes stamped with a tiny pink dromedary.

The No. 9's are, according to the floral advertising, "light and luscious," and full-size packs are being handed out free to women at bars in Raleigh and other towns.

"They're cute," said Samantha Brown, a 20-year-old junior at North Carolina State University, smoking another Camel brand with a friend one recent afternoon on a sidewalk.

"And they're lighter. They are," Brown said of the No. 9's. "It's like smoking air."

But under legislation pending in Congress, the marketing of the new, women-oriented brand—along with other tobacco products—would change. The cigarette itself might, too.

There would be no "light" cigarettes. Ads in young people's magazines would be stark. Gone would be the colorful posters at stop-and-shops. And the cigarettes couldn't be offered as free samples in packs of fewer than 20.

A sweeping bipartisan bill introduced this month would authorize the Food and Drug Administration to begin regulating tobacco for the first time. The bill, running more than 150 pages, is championed by Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Hearings on the legislation begin Tuesday in the Senate Health Committee.

The bill would put in place a set of 1996 rules on marketing that were blocked by a judicial ruling.

The measure would require disclosure of cigarette ingredients to the federal government and scientific reviews of any claims that a cigarette poses a "reduced risk" to smokers.

It also would allow the FDA to whittle away at harmful contents, including nicotine, to any level but zero.

"This is a very significant step," said Paul Billings, vice president of national policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association. "This is the one thing the federal government can do to control marketing and selling the product to kids."

Advocates also believe that the bill could pass in the current political landscape. Democrats are in charge of Congress.

"The current environment is good for us to get this done this year," said Wendy Selig, vice president for legislative affairs for the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network.

With the federal government no longer propping up tobacco, the tobacco interests are somewhat splintered.

Philip Morris of Richmond, Va., maker of Marlboro and Virginia Slims, supports the legislation, saying regulation would bring "predictability and clear standards" to the tobacco industry.

Other companies, including R.J. Reynolds of Winston-Salem, N.C., are opposed, saying the bill prevents them from going after other brands' smokers in an already shrinking market.

The bill's supporters must first pass through North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican who has pledged to use "every legislative tool at my disposal" to stall the bill.

Burr hails from Winston-Salem. And he successfully helped block this very legislation when it came up in 2003, during his time in the House of Representatives.

On the Kennedy bill, he figures he could eat up five weeks of the Senate's legislative business through various holds and procedural votes.

"Clearly, I can only cause so much havoc for so long," Burr said Monday. "I lose this vote over time, but I sure can eat up the clock."

Burr wants to negotiate some oversight—on disclosing ingredients, for example—without the sweep of the current proposal.

Tommy Payne, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds' parent company, fears the current bill would kill the company's ability to expand its market.

"It says you couldn't roll out a brand-new style like Camel No. 9's without prior approval of the federal government," said Payne, executive vice president for public affairs for Reynolds American Inc.

"And it says those would have to be in the interest of public health," Payne said. "And, I mean, they're cigarettes."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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