Feb. 15, 2007 -- A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation Thursday that would give the FDA new power to regulate tobacco.
The bill has languished in Congress for several years. But backers say they're confident that broad bipartisan support will succeed in putting it on President Bush's desk for the first time.
A similar bill passed the Senate in 2004 only to fall to Republican opposition in the House. Congress has been wrangling over the FDA's authority to limit cigarettes ever since the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in 2000 that the agency has no inherent authority to regulate tobacco.
Now the bill has the backing of several key Republicans, including some from tobacco-producing states.
"I think there's going to be a strong bipartisan majority here," says Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a conservative who is sponsoring the legislation with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass).
The bill would give the FDA new power to crack down on cigarette advertising aimed at children and would also strengthen warning labels on ads and cigarette packs. Regulators would have the authority to order harmful ingredients removed from cigarettes and would force manufacturers to clear health-related terms like "light" or "low-tar" with the agency before using them for marketing.
The FDA moved in the late 1990s to establish regulatory limits on tobacco products and marketing. Advertising companies quickly sued to block the rules, and cigarette makers took their case to the Supreme Court.
The bill gives the agency the authority to regulate cigarette sales in an effort to prevent children from taking up the habit. More than half of all regular smokers are thought to start before they are 18 years old, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the bill's lead sponsor in the House, said the bill will not seek to ban smoking by adults, or to take nicotine -- the addictive ingredient in tobacco -- out of cigarettes.
Waxman was a key force behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's decision last month to ban cigarette smoking by lawmakers in the ornate Speaker's Lobby adjacent to the House floor.
"This is the year I believe that the regulation of tobacco by the Food and Drug Administration is going to become law," he told reporters.
The bill has divided cigarette makers. Steven C. Parrish, senior vice president of Altria Group, Inc., said in a statement that the public has reached consensus for "broad regulation" of tobacco.
"We wholeheartedly support the FDA legislation introduced today in its entirety," Parrish said.
But regulation is opposed by R.J. Reynolds, the nation's second largest cigarette manufacturer. David Howard, a company spokesman, says regulation unfairly disables the company from improving its market share against industry leader Altria.
"If you have no way of communicating what makes your products different and possibly better it makes it very hard to compete," he said.
More than 400,000 Americans are thought to die from the direct effects of cigarette smoking each year, according to the CDC.
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) predicted that Congressional votes on the regulation will show broad support.
"This will be a very large margin. This could be better than two to one," he said.