June 12, 2009

Senate Grants FDA Sweeping Powers Over Tobacco Industry

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly endorsed legislation that would bestow the Food and Drug Administration with unprecedented authority to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products. This will permit the agency to restrict tobacco advertisements, mandate stronger package warnings and inspect manufacturers' facilities.

Supporters of the bill, including hundreds of health advocacy groups, celebrated the passage of the bill as a chance to curb the influence of the powerful cigarette industry and deter smoking, particularly among teens.

"The tobacco companies' days of peddling one of the most deadly products in the world have finally come to an end," said Democratic Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin. "Now, we've given the FDA the tools necessary to protect millions of children and families from deadly tobacco-related diseases."

According to the new legislation, which passed by an unusually high bipartisan margin of 79-17, the FDA would not only be charged with the regulation of tobacco products, packaging and advertisements, it would also be permitted to inspect cigarette manufacturing facilities, which will be required to register with the agency and provide a list all the products they produce.

The U.S. House of Representatives already passed a similar piece of legislation in April.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday that she needed a bit of time for a closer examination of the Senate's bill, but added 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," she said.

President Barack Obama, who has publicly discussed his own efforts to quit smoking, has said that he will sign the bill into law, adding that "it will make history by giving the scientists and medical experts at the FDA the power to take sensible steps that will reduce tobacco's harmful effects and prevent tobacco companies from marketing their products to children."

Tobacco companies have thus far failed to organize a unified front in opposition to the likely new regulations.

According to an official statement, Altria Group Inc's Philip Morris unit, the country's largest producer of tobacco products, supports "tough but reasonable federal regulation of tobacco products."

Others however, such as Reynolds American Inc's R.J. Reynolds Tobacco unit and Lorillard Inc's Lorillard Tobacco Co, have bluntly stated that the new records and fees will be a big burden.

The potential new law explicitly bans all flavored tobacco products, except for menthol, a detail that could prove potentially disastrous for Lorillard. Additionally, the bill calls for a detailed study on the health effects of menthol cigarette, especially among black and Hispanics populations.

The bill represents the toughest legislation directed against the tobacco industry since laws first banned them from making television and radio advertisements almost 40 years ago.

Opponents of the bill have argued that the FDA is already overstretched by its pharmaceutical regulatory responsibilities and is simply not up to the task of regulating yet another industry.

Others have also contended that federal funds could be more effectively spent on programs aimed directly at helping people quit smoking rather than regulating a product that everyone knows can lead to death and serious illnesses. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said tobacco use leads to more than 400,000 preventable deaths in the United States annually.

"We should focus FDA resources on protecting the public health, not burdening it with an impossible assignment," said Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

However, McConnell's republican colleague Senator Mike Enzi, a leading member of the Senate health committee, voted for the bill despite concerns over long-term funding for the FDA.

"This bill is the only bill that will seriously keep kids from smoking," he said. "We know from past experience that tobacco companies are not inclined to follow the law."


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