- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Senate easily overcame a final legislative hurdle Wednesday to a bill that for the first time would give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products.

The bill advanced toward almost certain passage in a 67-30 vote that ended the possibility of a filibuster. A final vote could come as early as Thursday.

The action brings anti-smoking groups and their allies in Congress a step closer to a goal that has eluded them for at least a decade: granting the FDA authority to impose new rules on the production, sale and marketing of cigarettes and other tobacco products.

“Every day that we delay having the FDA take on this responsibility and begin controlling the marketing and sale of these products, we run the risk of more and more children starting the habit,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, a lead sponsor of the bill.

The Federal Trade Commission 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.

Mr. Dodd said that 3,000 to 4,000 young people start smoking every day, 1,000 become addicted, and about half of those smokers eventually die of smoking-related illnesses.

Mr. Dodd noted that about 400,000 people a year die of the “self-inflicted wound” of smoking.

A similar bill passed the House last month, and President Obama, a smoker himself, has signaled his willingness to sign the measure into law.

The bills also 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.

Previous attempts to expand government control of the tobacco industry failed in the face of stiff resistance from the tobacco lobby and President George W. Bush. 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.

One of the bill’s lead sponsors is longtime anti-smoking advocate Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, who is battling brain cancer and did not attend the vote.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said members cast their votes with Mr. Kennedy in mind.

“His dogged determination to reduce the number of smoking deaths in this country has brought us to this moment,” Mr. Durbin said before the vote.

Opposition to the bill was led by the chamber’s North Carolina senators, Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard M. Burr, whose state is the country’s top tobacco producer.

North Carolina is home to 12,000 tobacco farms and 65,000 tobacco-industry jobs.

Mrs. Hagan and Mr. Burr 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.

An alternative bill by the North Carolina senators that would have precluded FDA control of tobacco was shot down Tuesday in a 60-35 vote.

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