The Senate will take up legislation tomorrow that would give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to make tobacco products less harmful to consumers.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will vote on a bill that would allow the FDA to regulate the levels of tar, nicotine and harmful ingredients that go into cigarettes. The legislation also contains provisions giving the FDA the power to restrict tobacco advertising and promotions, especially to children.
"For too long, tobacco companies have tried to play by their own rules, escaping much-needed federal oversight," said Cass Wheeler, chief executive officer of the American Heart Association. "They need to play with a clean deck — one that"s not marked with misleading and damaging information. If we are going to win the war against tobacco, Congress must pass this overdue bill."
Tobacco use, while legal, is considered the single most preventable cause of death in the United States, causing more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, one in every five deaths in the U.S. is smoking-related.
Public-health advocates critical of the bill say it could create a faulty perception that cigarettes are safe just because the FDA has given them a stamp of approval. But supporters of the bill contend that the bill is better than nothing because the FDA would have new authority to use scientific evidence to reduce the harm caused by tobacco.
Phillip Morris, manufacturer of the popular Marlboro cigarette brand and the biggest manufacturer of tobacco in the U.S., supports the bill.
"We believe regulation of tobacco products by the FDA would establish a comprehensive national tobacco policy that could potentially create a competitive framework within which manufacturers are focused on reducing the harm tobacco use causes," said Carol Springstun, a spokeswoman for Altria Group Inc., the parent company of the Richmond tobacco manufacturer. "The companies believe regulation would also bring predictability and clear standards to the tobacco industry in the United States."
But other tobacco companies, such as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., oppose the bill because its restrictions on advertising likely would serve to bolster Phillip Morris' top market position in the cigarette industry.
Advertising for tobacco products has experienced a slow demise since federal law took away manufacturers' right to advertise on television and radio decades ago. Since then, billboard advertising and merchandise ads have been stripped away as well. The bill being considered tomorrow would prohibit magazine advertising and point-of-sales advertising such as signage in retail stores, which competitors of Philip Morris say is taking it too far.
"The advertising restrictions in the bill are anti-competitive," said John Singleton, director of communications for Reynolds America. "They would make it very difficult to communicate with adult smokers."
Phillip Morris holds half of the market share for cigarettes in the U.S., while R.J. Reynolds a little less than one-third of the market. If passed into law, Mr. Singleton said those numbers would be etched in stone.
A key Republican senator is not satisfied with the watered-down version of the current bill. But the bill's failure to muster enough support in past years has led to softer language that is more palatable for some tobacco companies.
"Big Tobacco supports this bill because they have a stake in maintaining the status quo; I don't. They"re happy with a bill that doesn"t stop people from smoking; I"m not. I want real change. We can and we must do better than this bill," said Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, the ranking member of the committee.