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Obama signs tobacco bill, raps ‘special interests’

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Add Big Tobacco to the list of the vanquished.

As he signed a law that makes tobacco companies submit to Food and Drug Administration regulation, President Obama on Monday said it's yet another special interest he and fellow Democrats have brought to heel so far in his young administration - joining credit card companies, home mortgage lenders and defense contractors as businesses that needed stricter government oversight.

"When I ran for president, I did so because I believed that despite the power of the status quo and the influence of special interests, it was possible for us to bring change to Washington," he said in signing the bill in the White House Rose Garden. "And the progress we've made these past five months has only reinforced my faith in this belief."

With a flick of the pen, Mr. Obama - a smoker himself who still "struggles" every day with his addiction, according to the White House - ensured that the landscape for cigarette manufacturers will look dramatically different in just a few years: no more candy-flavored cigarettes, no more cool T-shirts or other marketing gimmicks and no more sporting-event sponsorships.

Under the law, for the first time, the FDA will have the job of regulating tobacco, which means the agency can eventually require bigger warnings on packaging, force companies to remove harmful additives and crack down on "misleading" labels, such as those for "light" or "mild" cigarettes.

The president called the bill a step in a long fight against tobacco companies, which he bundled with other "special interest" targets.

But Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Altria Group, the parent of major cigarette company Philip Morris USA, said that comment seems misplaced because the company backed the bill.

"It's important to remember we supported this," Mr. Phelps said. "We've supported federal regulation of tobacco products through the years."

Not all tobacco companies did, though. Another major manufacturer, R.J. Reynolds, argued that the FDA is already overburdened and that more emphasis should be placed on educating smokers about ways to reduce harm if they choose to continue to smoke.

The bill received strong support from both parties. It passed the House 307-97 and in the Senate overcame an attempted filibuster on a 67-30 vote, then passing 79-17.

Mr. Obama said it's part of his special influence-busting work, following a law to limit credit card companies' abilities to impose fees or increase rates; a law to stop mortgage fraud; and a law that streamlines Defense Department procurement, which he said was aimed at combating abuse from defense contractors.

The White House said the tobacco bill sets some deadlines:

• By October, cigarettes known primarily for their candy, spice or fruit flavors will be banned.

• by January, tobacco companies will have to give the FDA a list of each product's ingredients and additives, nicotine content and health information.

• By April, the FDA will issue regulations banning tobacco companies from sponsoring sporting or entertainment events using brand names and prohibiting companies from selling or giving away clothing with brand names or logos.

• By July 2011, warning labels on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products will have been enhanced, with warnings taking up the top portion of each package.

The goal, the president said, is to try to reduce smoking, particularly by keeping children from starting.

"I was one of these teenagers. And so I know how difficult it can be to break this habit when it's been with you for a long time," Mr. Obama said.

Still, the White House was coy about Mr. Obama's own addiction. Despite the attention the bill signing was bound to bring to Mr. Obama's own experience, his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said he had failed to check in with Mr. Obama recently on his habit.

The enthusiasm for cracking down on tobacco companies was strong.

"We are making it harder for those companies to target our children and making it easier for those who smoke to overcome their addictions while we also make tobacco products less toxic for those who cannot or do not want to stop," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

The FDA is expected to take a deliberate approach to issuing regulations. A spokeswoman said the FDA had no schedule for how it would proceed.

Washington's battle with tobacco regulations stretches back decades. In the 1980s, smoking on domestic flights was banned, and in the 1990s, restrictions on smoking in federal buildings passed. States also fought the companies, winning what was known as the Master Settlement Agreement in the late 1990s, which required tobacco companies to pay more than $200 billion over three decades to compensate for tobacco-related costs to Medicaid.

Mr. Obama said during those fights tobacco companies "spent millions upon millions" on lobbyists to walk the halls of Congress trying to block legislation, and he said that's why Monday's law was so remarkable.

"Despite the best efforts and good progress made by so many leaders and advocates with us today, the tobacco industry and its special-interest lobbying have generally won the day up on the Hill," he said, pointing back to 1994 congressional hearings, when tobacco executives denied knowledge their projects were harmful.

"Fifteen years later, their campaign has finally failed," he said. "Today, change has come to Washington."

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