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Lawmakers want tobacco put under FDA control

The House on Thursday voted to give the Food and Drug Administration unprecedented powers to regulate the tobacco industry.

The measure would allow the FDA to reject new tobacco products, restrict advertising and take other steps. It passed easily, 298 to 112, but may face a filibuster in the Senate.

Anti-smoking groups have clamored for years for the government to exert more control over the industry.

“This is truly a historic day in the fight against tobacco, and I am proud that we have taken such decisive action,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) in a statement.

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Since 2000, when the Supreme Court ruled that the FDA did not have the authority to regulate tobacco products, Waxman and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) have taken turns submitting legislation to give the FDA control. A similar bill Waxman introduced last year also passed the House, but it languished in a Senate subcommittee after President Bush vowed to veto it.

Now, with the backing of President Obama, whose own struggles to quit smoking are well documented, the measure stands a better chance of becoming law, advocates said.

However, senators from some tobacco-growing states are lining up to oppose it, with Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) threatening a filibuster.

The bill would give the FDA wide-ranging control over tobacco products, including the elimination of harmful additives as well as candylike flavorings appealing to children. .

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The bill would also allow the FDA to regulate nicotine levels and prohibit potentially healthy-sounding terms like “light” and “mild” in product descriptions.

The bill would not let the FDA ban tobacco products or nicotine.

The leaders of several major public health groups -- including the American Medical Assn., the American Lung Assn. and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids -- endorsed the legislation.

Some House members who opposed the measure advocated smoking-cessation efforts instead.

During floor debate, Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) argued that consumers might infer from an FDA stamp of approval that the tobacco products were safe.

Buyer also said that the cash-strapped FDA couldn’t handle regulating another huge industry.

He advocated housing the program within the Health and Human Services Department.

But Waxman dismissed Buyer’s concerns, saying that because the program would be funded by a fee levied on the tobacco industry, it would not divert resources from other FDA functions.

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“We shouldn’t delay this long-overdue measure based on a misplaced concern about the FDA’s other resource challenges,” he said.

Dr. David Kessler, who headed the FDA under President Clinton, said the legislation would provide the right tools to thwart the addictive cues -- in marketing claims and in the products themselves -- that the tobacco industry has for years used to hook people.

“It is as near perfect a bill as we have had over the last two decades,” he said.

Kessler pointed to the culture shift the country has undergone since Waxman first introduced legislation nearly two decades ago.

“Where once we saw smoking as something glamorous and pleasurable,” Kessler said, “now we see it as a deadly addictive product.”

Tobacco giant Philip Morris is also behind the bill. Altria Group Inc., Philip Morris’ parent company, said in a statement that it supports “tough but reasonable federal regulation of tobacco products” and that the company would “monitor and engage on this legislation” as it makes its way through Congress.

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rcole@tribune.com

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