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Congress Passes Tobacco Crackdown

Bill Gives FDA Power Over Cigarettes, Ending Decade-Long Fight

By Todd Zwillich
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

June 12, 2009 -- Congress on Friday sent a bill to President Barack Obama slapping new regulations on the tobacco industry and curtailing how cigarettes can be manufactured, marketed, and sold.

The bill for the first time gives the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products. Congress has been trying for almost a decade to grant that authority, after the Supreme Court said in 2000 that the agency did not have the power to regulate the cigarette industry on its own.

After more than a week of debate, the Senate approved the bill by a 79-17 vote last night.

In a statement in the White House Rose Garden Friday, President Obama said he would sign the bill into law.

"For over a decade, leaders of both parties have fought to prevent tobacco companies from marketing their products to children and provide the public with the information they need to understand what a dangerous habit this is. And after a decade of opposition, all of us are finally about to achieve the victory with this bill, a bill that truly defines change in Washington," Obama said.

The bill forces tobacco companies to seek FDA's approval to market new products and bars them from manipulating the level of nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes. The bill also:

  • Bars the use of terms like "lite" and "low tar." Antismoking advocates worry those labels suggest that the cigarettes are not as harmful, which studies show is not the case.
  • Bans flavorings like fruit, candy, and spices that can appeal to children. It does not ban menthol flavorings.
  • Sets new restrictions on advertising. FDA will now have the power to regulate tobacco advertising, it's look, distribution, and content in the "interest of public health."
  • Requires larger warnings labels on cigarette packs and in advertising.
  • Gives FDA the power to lower nicotine levels in cigarettes, but does not let the government lower the level to zero.
  • Bans tobacco or cigarette company sponsorship of sporting or entertainment events.
  • Does NOT raise taxes on cigarettes nor ban them.

Supporters said the bill's tough restrictions on marketing and advertising would make it more difficult for companies to lure young people to cigarettes.

"It's clear that what the tobacco companies know they have to do, is they have to replenish their customers, they have to find more than a thousand new customers a day," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. "They go to teenagers, and those are the people they know they must addict."

The bill passed the House with more than 300 votes in favor, and only a handful of members, mostly from tobacco-growing states, opposed it.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) argued that the FDA is already overwhelmed with it's charges of regulating prescription medications, medical devices, and the safety of large parts of the food supply. Instead, he proposed creating a separate agency to regulate tobacco products. Burr, who is a member of the HELP Committee, also said the FDA's reputation as a public health agency would be damaged by forcing it to approve inherently unhealthy products.

"I go to the core mission of the FDA, to approve the safety and efficacy of every product that they regulate. Can they do that with tobacco? No. Which means they're going to turn their head on their core mission on one product, and that's not going to spill over to the other products? Are the American people really ready to take that risk?" he said in an interview.

Public health, medical, and religious groups all came out strongly for the legislation.

Margaret A. Hamburg, the newly appointed FDA commissioner, issued a statement saying the agency "welcomes the authority" to regulate tobacco.

"We view our new responsibilities as a logical extension of our public health mission," she said.

About 400,000 deaths per year in the U.S. are attributable to smoking, according to the CDC. About one-fifth of U.S. adults smoke. Though the number has dropped over the last several decades, public health experts have been troubled by a recent leveling-off in adult and youth smoking numbers.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the chairman of the HELP Committee and a longtime advocate of tobacco control efforts, said in a statement: "Decades of irresponsible delay are finally over. Today's landmark vote will save millions of children from a lifetime of addiction and premature death. Public health experts overwhelmingly agree that enactment of this legislation is the most important action Congress can take to reduce youth smoking."

Kennedy did not vote on the measure Thursday because he is ill with a brain tumor and absent from the Senate.

SOURCES: S. 982, The Family Smoking Prevention and Control Act. President Barack Obama. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC). National Center for Health Statistics.

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