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FDA May Get Right to Regulate Tobacco

Lawmakers Get Support From Major Cigarette Company in Bid to Control Tobacco
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WebMD Health News

May 20, 2004 -- The FDA would gain the authority to strictly regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products under a bill introduced in Congress Thursday.

The bill is the latest in a series of attempts over the last decade to let the agency assert authority over tobacco products. All of those attempts have failed, but supporters predicted that this try would succeed because it has the support of a major cigarette manufacturer as well as public health groups.

"What is different is the groups that have come together behind this bill," says Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), the Senate co-sponsor.

The proposal gives FDA the power to approve tobacco products for sale and would let the agency keep certain cigarettes off the market for not meeting marketing or manufacturing standards. Tobacco companies would no longer be able to market cigarettes claiming to be "light," "ultra-light," or "low-tar" without the agency's approval.

The FDA also would have the authority to force cigarette makers to lower the amount of harmful ingredients, including nicotine, but does not allow the agency to ban cigarettes altogether or require consumers to have a prescription to purchase them.

"Tobacco is the deadliest product on the market today," says Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) who is sponsoring the bill in the House.

The bill also gives the FDA new powers to restrict advertising and marketing of cigarettes, including to children. One provision would force companies to use only black and white print advertisements. Another would ban the sale of flavored cigarettes that could be attractive to kids and would let federal and state officials regulate the "place, time, and manner" of cigarette promotion.

Twenty-three percent of U.S. adults and 29% of high school students smoke, according to 2001 data from the CDC.

The FDA tried to assert authority over tobacco products under the Clinton administration in 1996, only to have its regulations struck down four years later by the Supreme Court. The court said in its decision that current law did not give the agency authority to regulate tobacco, despite its obvious health dangers.

Public health groups offered praise for the bill. Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, calls the bill "historic" and said that "it has the opportunity to literally save millions of lives." The American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association are also backing the bill.

But the bill also garnered the support of Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest cigarette maker. The company and its parent, Altria Group, "enthusiastically endorse passage of both bills in their entirety," Steven C. Parish, Altria's senior vice president of corporate affairs, says of the Senate and House measures.

Public health groups had to compromise on some parts of the bill to get the company's support, Myers says. The bill does not give the FDA the right to ban cigarettes or to force cigarettes to contain no nicotine at all, as groups wanted.

Previous efforts to give the FDA power over cigarettes have run into opposition from lawmakers from tobacco-growing states. Supporters say they hope to gain their support this time by attaching the measure to upcoming votes on a federal buy-out program for tobacco farmers supported by many Southern lawmakers.

"Such a buy-out won't come about unless it's coupled with FDA legislation," says Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican sponsor of the FDA bill from the tobacco-growing from Virginia, a major tobacco growing state.

"You'll have deal-making time as we go forward on this," he says.

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