- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation Thursday that for the first time would bring down the full force of the government’s regulatory hammer on the tobacco industry.

The measure, which anti-smoking advocates have pursued for decades, would give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products, including the power to dictate ingredients and nicotine levels in cigarettes.

The bill passed 79-17, with Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina joining 16 Republicans in opposing the legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House, which passed its own bill in April, would likely adopt the Senate version and move it quickly to President Obama for signing in the coming days.

“I believe it will be possible for us to accept their bill and send it right on to the president,” the California Democrat said.

The bill would immediately impose sweeping restrictions on the marketing and sale of cigarettes to children, such as limiting where cigarette companies can advertise and banning all tobacco-brand sponsorship of sports and entertainment events.

“The United States Senate has finally said ‘no’ to Big Tobacco,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who sponsored the bill but missed the vote because he is battling brain cancer.

“Decades of irresponsible delay are finally over,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in a statement released after the vote.

Mrs. Hagan and North Carolina’s other senator, Republican Richard M. Burr, led efforts to defeat the bill. Their state is the country’s top tobacco producer, home to 12,000 tobacco farms and 65,000 tobacco-industry jobs.

They argued that the FDA was ill-equipped to oversee the tobacco industry and that the agency would undermine efforts to develop safer tobacco products by regulating ingredients in cigarettes.

The Senate passage of the bill, titled the “Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act,” made the new regulations all but certain.

Medical organizations and anti-smoking groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Cancer Society, applauded the Senate vote.

“This long overdue legislation will protect kids and reduce the terrible human and financial burden caused by tobacco use in this country,” said Paul G. Billings, vice president for policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association

The changes for the tobacco industry would be profound.

The bill would require stronger warning labels and prohibit marketing cigarettes with terms such as “light” or “mild” that critics say mislead people into thinking the product is safer.

Under the legislation, the Health and Human Services secretary would be given authority to impose restrictions on the advertising and promotion of a tobacco product.

The Federal Trade Commission currently has primary responsibility now for regulating tobacco products, which are largely exempt from the scrutiny that has been standard for food, drugs and other consumer products.

Previous attempts to expand government control of the tobacco industry failed in the face of stiff resistance from the tobacco lobby and the Bush administration. But this time, the bill got unexpected support from Virginia-based Philip Morris USA, the country’s No. 1 tobacco company.

The next two largest tobacco companies, North Carolina-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard Tobacco Co., argued that changing regulations now would preserve R.J. Reynolds’ share of the market and give it an unfair business advantage.

About 21 percent of U.S. adults smoke, according to a Gallup Poll last year.

That is down from a decade earlier, when the poll showed between 22 percent and 28 percent smoked, and the lowest smoking rate since Gallup began asking the question more than 60 years ago.

The 1950s marked the high point for smoking in the United States, when 45 percent of Americans said they smoked. The smoking rate remained at 40 percent or more through the early 1970s, but has since gradually declined.

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