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Senate Approves Bill to Allow FDA Regulation of Tobacco

FILE -- In this Jan. 9, 2009 file photo, Sen. Dick Durbin, talks with reporters during a news conference in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)
FILE -- In this Jan. 9, 2009 file photo, Sen. Dick Durbin, talks with reporters during a news conference in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File) (Nam Y. Huh - AP)

Philip Morris, the country's largest manufacturer of tobacco products, supported the legislation, saying it hopes to develop new reduced-risk offerings. The rest of the industry opposed the measure, saying it would freeze market share and give Philip Morris an unfair advantage.

The idea of tobacco regulation strikes some as nonsensical -- taking a product that, if used as directed, will kill a third of those who use it and placing it under the control of an agency charged with protecting public health. But health advocates argue that FDA oversight is the best hope for reducing the 400,000 deaths each year from tobacco use.

Under the bill, the industry will have to disclose the ingredients in its products for the first time, and the FDA could ban the most harmful of the estimated 6,000 chemicals used in cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products. It could also reduce the amount of nicotine, perhaps to a point where tobacco is no longer addictive and smokers who want to quit can break free more easily.

The legislation requires tobacco companies to expand the size of warning labels so that they cover 50 percent of a pack, and to include graphic images of the health effects of tobacco, such as images of diseased lungs. Congress required warning labels on cigarette packs in 1965 and updated them in 1984.

Advertising and promotion will also be restricted. Tobacco manufacturers will be unable to use the terms "light," "mild" and "low" unless they can scientifically prove that the product so labeled is less harmful than standard tobacco.

The legislation creates a new tobacco center within the FDA that will be funded by fees from the industry. Those fees are estimated to reach more than $500 million annually by 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The FDA first tried to regulate tobacco in the 1990s under then-Commissioner David A. Kessler, but the industry battled it to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5 to 4 in 2000 that the agency had exceeded its statutory authority. It called on Congress to amend the law.

"All along, we thought it never made sense that the most dangerous preventable cause of death was not regulated," Kessler said yesterday from Boston, as he watched the Senate vote via C-SPAN.

By the time the Supreme Court rendered its decision, a curious thing had happened: Philip Morris, the maker of Marlboro, said it would accept some oversight.

At the time, Philip Morris executives were charting a strategy to improve the company's image and regain the social acceptance it had lost in the 1990s as evidence emerged that the industry had lied to the public about the addictive nature of nicotine. The company changed its name in 2001 to Altria Group; executives said they wanted to craft a new image untainted by cigarettes.

Exactly what the new legislation will mean for smokers will depend on how aggressively the FDA exercises its new power.


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