- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Anti-smoking forces are predicting a long-awaited victory when the House votes on legislation that would, for the first time, allow government regulation of tobacco products.

The House scheduled a vote for Thursday morning on the legislation, which gives the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate _ but not ban _ cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Action by the Senate, and President Barack Obama’s signature, still would be needed before the bill could become law.

Supporters were convinced they could achieve both those steps. They said success was in sight after years of attempts to tame an industry so fundamental to America that carved tobacco leaves adorn some parts of the U.S. Capitol.

“We have come to what I hope will be an historic occasion, and that is finally doing something about the harm that tobacco does to thousands and thousands of Americans who die each year,” Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said Wednesday as lawmakers debated his Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.

It was Waxman who in 1994 summoned the heads of big tobacco to the famous hearing where they testified that nicotine was not addictive.

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

Opponents from tobacco-growing states like top-producing North Carolina argued that the FDA had proven through a series of food safety failures that it’s not up to the job. They also said that instead of unrealistically trying to get smokers to quit or prevent them from starting, lawmakers should ensure they have other options, like smokeless tobacco.

That was the aim of an alternate bill offered by Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., who would leave the FDA out and create a different agency within the Health and Human Services Department. His bill also was expected to come to a vote Thursday.

“Effectively giving FDA stamp of approval on cigarettes will improperly lead people to believe that these products are safe, and they really aren’t,” Buyer said. “We want to move people from smoking down the continuum of risk to eventually quitting.”

Major public health groups, including the American Lung Association and the American Medical Association, wrote to lawmakers asking them to oppose Buyer’s bill, contending it would leave tobacco companies without meaningful regulation and able to make untested claims about the health effects of their products.

Buyer pointed out that Waxman’s bill is supported by the nation’s largest tobacco company, Marlboro maker Philip Morris USA. Officials at rival tobacco companies contend the Waxman bill could lock in Philip Morris’ market share.

Former President George W. Bush opposed Waxman’s legislation and issued a veto threat after it passed the House last year. The Obama administration, by contrast, issued a statement declaring strong support.

Obama has spoken publicly of his struggles to quit cigarettes.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., plans to introduce his version of the legislation after Congress returns from a recess later this month. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., is expected to lead the opposition, but supporters are confident they can clear the 60-vote threshold needed to break a filibuster.

Waxman and Kennedy have been trying to give the FDA authority to regulate tobacco ever since the Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the agency did not have that authority.

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