ABIPARTISAN proposal in Congress to give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products is a milestone in the tobacco wars. The bill has strong support from anti-tobacco activists and Altria Group Inc., as tobacco giant Philip Morris is now known. It is sponsored by two Republicans, Sen. Mike DeWine (Ohio) and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), and by two Democrats, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.). Philip Morris has, for some time now, declared its support for FDA jurisdiction in principle -- a position that puts it at odds with the other major players in its industry. But the company and public health advocates have not agreed on how strong the agency's authority should be in critical areas. Now, for the first time, both sides have signed on to the same bill.
Congress should move quickly to enact it into law. This may prove tricky, because FDA regulation of tobacco is not the hot issue it once was in Congress. The Bush administration is not pushing for a bill, and the House Republican leadership is hostile to it. On the other hand, tobacco-state lawmakers are keen to pass legislation to buy out struggling tobacco farmers; the money would come from the tobacco companies. Because this idea may lack a legislative majority on its own, marrying it to an FDA-jurisdiction bill could enable both to become law. The trouble is that House members are poised to attach a version of the buyout bill, this one using federal money, to a different piece of legislation -- thereby leaving FDA regulation high and dry and the public funding the buyout.
Recent studies suggest that coordinated anti-smoking programs are reducing smoking rates. Youth smoking has declined sharply over the past several years, after spiking in the mid-1990s. And data from New York City show an 11 percent drop in the number of smokers between 2002 and 2003. Meaningful national regulatory control over tobacco marketing and production, the additives in cigarettes, the claims about cigarettes sold as reduced-risk products, and the nicotine content in tobacco would further reduce smoking and save lives. Even Philip Morris is on board. Congress should not lag behind.