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It's been 45 years since the surgeon general made what at the time was an earth-shaking announcement: smoking causes cancer. That finding launched decades of debate over what the government should do about tobacco. Now, we've come upon a milestone: the president is set to sign legislation that gives the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco.
But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, that doesn't mean the government will be in complete control of the tobacco industry.
GREG ALLEN: It's a bill that's been more than 10 years in the making, supported by Republicans and Democrats, President Obama, and more surprisingly, by the nation's largest tobacco company, Philip Morris.
Philip Morris worked with congressional staff and even some anti-tobacco activists to help write the bill.
Bill Phelps is a spokesman for Philip Morris.
Mr. BILL PHELPS (Spokesman, Philip Morris USA): Well, I think one of the strengths of this legislation is it gives the FDA the authority to look at the research and evidence and science available, and use that information to make scientifically grounded decisions.
ALLEN: Decisions on things like new tobacco products. Like the other big tobacco companies, Philip Morris has been working on smokeless tobacco products, like the Marlboro Snus. It's a small pouch of tobacco, sort of like a tiny teabag that's placed in the mouth. The tobacco companies say this new generation of products may be safer than cigarettes or conventional smokeless products, and they're hoping the FDA will back them up.
Again, Bill Phelps.
Mr. PHELPS: Our goal would be to design the best products that we can and then, under federal authority, make them available to adults who do not quit.
ALLEN: Under current law, tobacco companies can't sell products as safer alternatives to smoking. As part of its new authority over tobacco, the FDA will now evaluate new products and decide whether they can be marketed as presenting a reduced risk.
Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says the intent of the bill and the FDA's mission is clear: to reduce the number of deaths related to tobacco.
Mr. MATTHEW MYERS (President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids): This legislation has the potential to produce the most fundamental change in how tobacco products are manufactured, marketed and sold in the United States.
ALLEN: The legislation, which still needs to be signed by the president, allows the FDA to regulate all ingredients of tobacco products, including nicotine. But while the agency can reduce nicotine, it can't remove it completely. And while most flavorings are banned, menthol, the flavoring used in a quarter of all cigarettes, is not.
Interestingly, after years of battling tobacco companies, Myers' group and others like the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association are now allied with Philip Morris in supporting the bill. And some anti-smoking activists are now on the other side, criticizing what supporters are touting as landmark legislation.
One of the most vocal critics is Michael Siegel with Boston University's School of Public Health. He says the problem is the bill has too many glaring loopholes.
Dr. MICHAEL SIEGEL (Boston University School of Public Health): The FDA can look at the legal age of sale of tobacco all they want, but the bill ties their hands. They can't raise the age of sale. The FDA may decide that the best thing we could do is get rid of the nicotine, which is the addictive component. The FDA can't do that.
So I would say that if you're going to try to make this a first step to lead to bigger and better things in the future, then you need to not tie FDA's hands.
ALLEN: It's not just anti-tobacco activists that are split over the legislation. It's also divided the tobacco industry. Number one tobacco company, Philip Morris wants it. Numbers two and three, Reynolds and Lorillard oppose it, in part because they believe it will prevent them from ever challenging the dominance of Philip Morris and its Marlboro brand. The bill gives the FDA broad authority over marketing and immediately clamps down on the few advertising venues still available to tobacco companies.
Maura Payne is with Reynolds American.
Ms. MAURA PAYNE (Vice President of Communications, Reynolds American): As you limit even further companies' abilities to talk to their customers, you potentially can lock into place market share trends and sales trends that one already sees today in the market.
ALLEN: Reynolds also worries that under FDA regulation, it will now be much more difficult to bring new tobacco products to market - products that could enable it to challenge Philip Morris.
Michael Siegel of Boston University School of Public Health has a different worry.
Dr. SIEGEL: This bill is essentially going to give cigarettes an FDA seal of approval. And if cigarettes are now under FDA jurisdiction, many people are going to believe that cigarettes are somehow safer, that the problems are being taken care of. And unfortunately, that's just not the case.
ALLEN: With years of rule-making and assessments still ahead, it's impossible to say how stringent FDA's regulation of tobacco will be. That's an uncertainty that's unsettling for many on both sides of the nation's tobacco debate.
Greg Allen, NPR News.
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