WASHINGTON – Congress struck the government's strongest anti-smoking blow in decades Thursday with a Senate vote to give regulators new power to limit nicotine in cigarettes, drastically curtail ads and ban candied tobacco products aimed at young people.
Cigarette foes say the changes could cut into the 400,000 deaths every year caused by smoking and reduce the $100 billion in annual health care costs linked to tobacco.
The legislation, one of the most dramatic anti-smoking initiatives since the U.S. surgeon general's warning 45 years ago that tobacco causes lung cancer, would give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate the content, marketing and advertising of cigarettes and other tobacco products.
"This legislation represents the strongest action Congress has ever taken to reduce tobacco use, the leading preventable cause of death in the United States," declared Matthew Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids.
The 79-17 Senate vote sends the measure back to the House, which in April passed a similar but not identical version. House acceptance of the Senate bill would send it directly to President Barack Obama, who supports the action. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that "from what I have seen so far, I believe it will be possible for us to accept their bill and send it right on to the president."
Obama's signature would then add tobacco to other huge, nationally important areas that have come under greater government supervision since his presidency began. Those include banking, housing and autos. Still to come, if Congress can agree: health care.
Supporters of FDA regulation of tobacco have struggled for more than a decade to overcome powerful resistance — from the industry and elsewhere. In 2000 the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the agency did not have the authority under current law to regulate tobacco products, and the George W. Bush administration opposed several previous efforts by Congress to write a new law.
Thursday's legislation gives the FDA power to evaluate the contents of tobacco products and to order changes or bans on those that are a danger to public health. The agency could limit nicotine yields but not ban nicotine or cigarettes.
Regulators could prohibit tobacco companies from using candy or other flavors in cigarettes that tend to attract young smokers, and restrict advertising in publications often read by teenagers. Rules on sales to minors would be toughened, as would warning labels. Tobacco companies would have to get FDA approval for new products, and would be barred from using terms such as "light" or "mild" that imply a smaller health risk.
Costs of the new program would be paid for through a fee imposed on tobacco companies.
"This is a bill that will protect children and will protect America," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a leading supporter. "Every day that we don't act, 3,500 American kids — children — will light up for the first time. That is enough to fill 70 school buses."
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that FDA regulation could reduce underage smoking by 11 percent over the next decade. There are more than 40 million smokers in America.
The bill, said American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown, "provides a tremendous opportunity to finally hold tobacco companies accountable and restrict efforts to addict more children and adults."
The tobacco lobby, contended Durbin, has long been the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill, "and they managed to create an exemption in virtually every law so that no federal agency could take a look at them and regulate them."
But the industry has also taken hits in recent years as the dangers of smoking became more apparent and states moved to limit smoking in public places. In 1998 the industry agreed to pay the states $206 billion to help cover health care costs, and this year Congress raised the federal cigarette tax by 62 cents, to $1.01 a pack, to fund a health care program for children.
The nation's largest tobacco manufacturer, Philip Morris, USA, has come out in support of the legislation. Its parent company, Altria Group, said in a statement that on balance, "the legislation is an important step forward to achieve the goal we share with others to provide federal regulation of tobacco products."
Its main rivals, however, have voiced opposition, arguing in part that FDA restrictions on new products will lock in Philip Morris' share of the market.
Lawmakers portrayed the bill as a major first step in bringing down health care costs, an essential goal of the health care overhaul legislation that is the top priority of the Obama administration this year.
"This bill may do more in the area of prevention, if adopted, than anything else we may include in the health care bill in the short term," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who managed the legislation on the Senate floor in the absence of the ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who has long promoted FDA regulation.
Opponents, led by Republican Sen. Richard Burr of the tobacco-growing state of North Carolina, argued that the FDA, which is in charge of ensuring the safety of food and drug products, was the wrong place to regulate an item that is injurious to health.
He also contended that the bill would restrict tobacco companies, including several based in his state, from developing new products that might be less harmful to users. He unsuccessfully proposed the creation of a new agency that would both regulate tobacco products and encourage efforts to make cigarettes less harmful.
By JIM ABRAMS
Thu Jun 11, 7:53 pm ET