- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 13, 2009

Forty years after cigarette ads were banned on TV and radio, Congress on Friday passed sweeping government regulation of the tobacco industry that bars “light,” “mild” and flavored cigarettes, and tobacco-brand sponsorship of sports and entertainment events.

The bill, which President Obama has promised to quickly sign into law, for the first time gives the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products, including the power to dictate ingredients and nicotine levels in cigarettes.

Anti-smoking advocates, whose efforts have been regularly beaten back by the powerful tobacco lobby, applauded the legislation that was designed to stem the nearly 400,000 smoking-related deaths in the United States annually and prevent teens from picking up the habit.

“Finally, the end of our hard-fought battle is within our reach,” said American Lung Association President Charles D. Connor. “We have finally begun to lift Big Tobacco’s death grip on our nation’s health.”

Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the bill would be the “last gasp” of Big Tobacco’s effort to preserve its profits at the expense of the health of Americans.

The House gave final approval to the “Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act” in a 307-97 vote, with 237 Democrats and 70 Republicans supporting it. The “no” votes by seven Democrats and 90 Republicans came mostly from lawmakers from tobacco-producing states. The bill had cleared the Senate on Thursday.

Mr. Obama, who the White House said still struggles with his nicotine addiction, said the bill “truly defines change in Washington.”

Opponents argued that the FDA, an agency weathering criticism for recent scares about tainted food and counterfeit drugs, is the wrong agency to oversee tobacco. The Federal Trade Commission has been regulating tobacco products, which are largely exempt from scrutiny standard for food, drugs and other consumer products.

They also said the government would be overstepping its bounds into the marketplace and that agency interference would undermine efforts to develop safer tobacco products by regulating ingredients in cigarettes.

“We are truly on the wave of socialism in this country,” Rep. Steve Buyer, Indiana Republican, said during the floor debate.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said her agency is ready for its new role.

“We really do feel [that] by being able to regulate tobacco and tobacco products, we can reduce the burden of disease, especially by preventing teen smoking,” she said. About 1,000 teens begin smoking every day.

The measure requires stronger warning labels and prohibits marketing cigarettes with terms such as “light” or “mild” that critics say mislead people into thinking the product is safer. It also adds marketing restrictions intended to protect children form the lure of smoking, including a ban on flavored cigarettes, a prohibition on outdoor tobacco advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, and a ban on tobacco-brand sponsorship of sports and entertainment events.

It relies on a new user fee imposed on the industry to pay for the program estimated to cost up to $700 million by 2019.

Previous attempts to give the FDA control over the tobacco industry have failed in the face of stiff resistance from its lobby and the Bush administration. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the FDA did not have the authority to regulate tobacco under existing laws, which have since been adjusted.

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 Philip Morris’ share of the market and give it an unfair business advantage.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed the bill Thursday in a 79-17 vote, with Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina joining 16 Republicans in opposing the legislation.

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.

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

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