- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Anti-smoking advocates soon may breathe easier, as a long-standing push on Capitol Hill for tighter tobacco restrictions is expected to come to a head when Congress returns from a two-week break Monday.

Amid the raucousness of approving the most expensive national budget in history on April 2, the House quietly passed legislation that would give the federal government key controls over the tobacco industry for the first time.

The Senate is expected to take up the measure this spring, though fierce opposition from members of both parties from tobacco-growing states could derail the bill.

The legislation would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to reduce nicotine levels and require larger and more informative health warnings on cigarette packs. It also would ban cigarette makers from using what the bill’s sponsors call misleading marketing terms, such as “light,” “low-tar” and “mild.”

Tobacco regulation now is mostly a state matter.

“This is truly a historic day in the fight against tobacco, and I am proud that we have taken such decisive action,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, when the measure passed the chamber by a vote of 298-112.

Last year, the Bush administration threatened to veto a similar bill, saying that taking on the responsibility of regulating tobacco would impede the FDA’s core mission of enforcing food and drug safety laws.

With no veto threat coming from the Obama administration, the measure has a greater likelihood of passing this year.

However, the bill’s fate is far less certain in the Senate, as Sen. Richard M. Burr, North Carolina Republican, is leading the opposition.

Mr. Burr has teamed with fellow North Carolinian and Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan to introduce an alternative bill that would put tobacco regulation under the authority of the Health and Human Services Department.

“Oversight of the tobacco industry is important, but as we have seen with recent food-borne epidemics, the FDA has its hands full,” Mr. Burr said. “This new agency will provide meaningful regulation without diverting the FDA from its core mission, which is ensuring that foods and medicines are safe and effective.”

Mr. Waxman’s version was drafted as a compromise between Philip Morris USA - the nation’s largest cigarette company - and a collection of health advocacy groups, including the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society.

“The FDA is the only agency with vast scientific and regulatory expertise to regulate addictive and deadly tobacco products, which are responsible for killing 400,000 Americans every year,” said Daniel E. Smith, president of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. “We call on the Senate to take up this legislation as quickly as possible and send it to the president’s desk for his signature.”

However, many small cigarette manufacturers oppose the measure, fearing that costly new FDA regulations would put them at a competitive disadvantage against giant Philip Morris, which would be able more easily to absorb additional expenses associated with new restrictions.

The Lorillard Tobacco Co. in recent weeks has run advertisements in newspapers across the country accusing the FDA of mismanagement and claiming the agency would be ill-equipped to tackle new responsibilities.

“Lorillard supports additional regulation of the tobacco industry. But the FDA is not the place for it,” said a recent ad by the company. “Expanding the FDA’s role, when [its] ineffective food and drug safety programs that are now in place pose an immediate threat, is a health hazard all its own.”

The Waxman bill would give the FDA access to data about tobacco product ingredients that can be used in designing new product standards and new disclosure requirements.

It also would impose strict penalties on tobacco companies that market their products to minors and for making false and misleading claims.

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