- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A long-standing movement on Capitol Hill to impose tighter restrictions on tobacco products took a step closer to law last week when a House panel approved legislation to give the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate the industry.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday voted 39-13 in favor of the bill, which now proceeds to the House floor for a full vote. A Senate committee already has approved a similar bill.

The legislation would give the FDA authority to reduce nicotine levels and require larger and more informative health warnings on cigarette packs. It also would impose strict penalties on tobacco companies that market their products to minors and for making false and misleading claims.

Tobacco regulation now is largely a state matter.

“Regulating tobacco is the single most important thing that we can do right now to curb the deadly toll of tobacco — and FDA is the right agency to do this job,” said committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat.

The measure is expected to pass the House easily but likely will face a tougher fight in the Senate. A similar bill passed the House last year by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, 326-102, but stalled in the Senate, where senators from tobacco-producing states fought it.

Opponents say that by taking on this responsibilitythe FDA would impede on its core mission of enforcing food and drug safety laws.

“The FDA is the wrong agency at the wrong time to give this type of responsibility,” said Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s ranking Republican.” This legislation will require the FDA to take on something that is both enormous, completely outside its regulatory experience and will divert attention from its core functions.”

The Bush administration, using similar rationale, threatened last year to veto the bill.

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

The legislation 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 Cancer Action Network.

Democrats seek court reversal

Two House Democratic leaders last week introduced legislation intended to reverse a U.S. Supreme Court decision that bars persons injured by certain medical devices from suing the manufacturer.

The court last year found that such claims are barred by a pre-emption clause included in the Medical Device Amendments of 1976. The bill’s sponsors — Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and Henry A. Waxman of California — say the decision has left consumers without any ability to seek compensation for their injuries, medical expenses and lost wages resulting from injuries caused by defective “pre-market” approval of the devices or inadequate safety warnings.

The lawmakers said the decision also removed one of the industry’s most important incentives to maintain product safety after approval.

“This legislation puts safety first and eliminates the blanket immunity that medical device companies currently enjoy thanks to an unfortunate Supreme Court decision last year,” Mr. Pallone said.

The court premised its decision on the theory that FDA approval adequately protects patients from unsafe medical devices, but the two lawmakers said that theory has been proved false time and again. They point to numerous recent stories of patients who have suffered serious injuries from defective FDA-approved devices or devices without adequate safety warnings, such as implantable cardiac defibrillators and pacemakers.

A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.

Blue Dogs launch task force

Several members of the fiscally conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition last week started the Blue Dog Health Care Task Force for the 111th Congress.

Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas, a leading member of the coalition and a member of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health, will serve as chairman of the task force. He said it will lead Blue Dog efforts to see that Congress advances health care reform legislation that not only addresses the millions of Americans lacking access to and affordability of coverage but also puts the country back on a fiscally sustainable path.

The costs of treating the uninsured in emergency rooms are being passed on to hospitals and eventually to consumers, perpetuating the cycle of rising health costs, the coalition says. Mr. Ross said the task force will play an active role in helping “to develop ideas and policies that are fiscally responsible and accountable to the American taxpayer.”

Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com

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