Wednesday, April 1, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - The House was poised Wednesday to thrust tobacco companies under government control after years of attempts in legislatures and the courts to tame one of the country’s signature industries.

Senate action would still be required, as well as President Barack Obama’s signature, before the Food and Drug Administration could get authority for the first time to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Supporters were convinced that both those pieces were in place. They pointed to strong backing from the White House _ where Obama has spoken of his own struggles to kick the cigarette habit _ and an increased Democratic majority in a Senate that’s already shown itself inclined to support the bill.

If it does become law, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act would amount to the biggest change ever in the government’s approach toward tobacco, which has remained largely hands-off even as the health hazards have become increasingly clear.

Although the FDA wouldn’t be allowed to ban nicotine or tobacco, the agency would be able to regulate the contents of tobacco products, make public their ingredients, prohibit flavoring, require much larger warning labels and control marketing campaigns, especially those geared toward children.

“This would be the most significant tobacco bill the Congress of the United States has ever enacted,” said Matthew Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “It would bring about fundamental change in the marketing, manufacturing and sale of cigarettes.”

Opponents, including some tobacco companies and lawmakers from tobacco-growing states, contended that the FDA, which has come under criticism after fumbling a series of health scares, was already overburdened and couldn’t handle the job of regulating another big industry. U.S. tobacco production was valued at $1.3 billion in 2007.

Opponents also argued that the bill by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., was unrealistically aimed at ending smoking altogether and wouldn’t allow nicotine addicts to learn of alternatives like smokeless tobacco.

Adult tobacco users who have not quit “should be encouraged to move from tobacco products with higher risks to those with lower risks,” said Maura Payne, spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

The House was expected to vote Wednesday on an alternate bill by Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., that would encourage development of less-harmful tobacco products and create a Tobacco Harm Reduction Center within the Department of Health and Human Services, instead of giving the job to the FDA.

The country’s largest tobacco company, Marlboro-maker Philip Morris USA, is supporting Waxman’s bill. Some analysts say the legislation could lock in Philip Morris’ market share while stunting the ability of other companies to compete.

Under President George W. Bush, who issued a veto threat after the House passed a nearly identical version of Waxman’s bill last year, the FDA said it didn’t want the job of regulating tobacco. The Obama administration is welcoming the task.

The White House issued a statement Wednesday saying it “strongly supported” the bill, and Obama’s nominee for HHS secretary, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, backed it during a hearing this week.

The issue has a long history laced with lawsuits and politics. President Bill Clinton’s FDA chief, David Kessler, pushed hard for tobacco regulations. Around the same period, in 1994, Waxman summoned the heads of big tobacco to the famous hearing in which they testified that nicotine wasn’t addictive.

Subsequent lawsuits against tobacco companies resulted in big payouts to states, some of which funded smoking-reduction campaigns that have contributed to a decrease in smoking rates. About one in five adults in the U.S. now smokes cigarettes. But a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that FDA didn’t have the authority to regulate tobacco makes congressional action necessary.

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