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After more than a decade of debate, federal oversight of the way cigarettes are made and sold appears closer than ever. The House today approved a bill, giving the Food and Drug Administration jurisdiction over tobacco. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The FDA would have the power to change the ingredients in cigarettes, dictate bold new warning labels and prohibit adjectives like mild and white that could mislead smokers. But the bill stopped short of allowing the agency to impose an outright ban on tobacco products or nicotine. The bill's sponsor, California Democrat Henry Waxman says the oversight is long overdue.
Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): While it is an inherently dangerous product, because it's the only product when used as intended, kills and makes people sick, it is not regulated.
ELLIOT: The FDA tried to regulate tobacco during the Clinton administration, but in a drawn out legal battle the Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that only Congress could give the agency that authority. Ever since, the industry's supporters in Congress have blocked attempts to give the FDA that power. Now the nation's top cigarette maker, Philip Morris, supports regulation.
But other firms say it will stifle development in safer tobacco products and chill competition. Republican Virginia Foxx is from tobacco-growing North Carolina, home to the country's number two cigarette maker, Reynolds American.
Representative VIRGINIA FOXX (Republican, North Carolina): The bill is a de facto prohibition of tobacco. It's going to legislate a big tobacco monopoly. This bill is going to increase taxes, expand government bureaucracy at the expense of public health.
ELLIOT: Public health groups disagree. Daniel Smith is president of the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network.
Mr. DANIEL SMITH (President, Cancer Action Network): For the first time tobacco will be regulated like any other product that you ingest in your body in this country. This bill will help keep tobacco products away from kids. It will require them to do ingredient disclosure, and it will give consumers basic information that they need and actually stop the tobacco companies from misleading the public.
ELLIOT: Still, there are skeptics.
Professor STAN GLANTZ (Director, Center for Tobacco Control, Research and Education): The bill as it's currently drafted is obsolete.
ELLIOT: Professor Stan Glantz is director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. He says the bill doesn't reflect the results of the 2008 election.
Prof. GLANTZ: It would be like if at the height of the Bush administration some environmental groups said, cut a deal on global warming with the oil industry, figuring it was the absolute best they could do.
ELLIOT: The most troublesome provision, he says, puts two nonvoting tobacco members from the Scientific Advisory Board that will oversee the FDA's tobacco rules.
Prof. GLANTZ: If we have learned one thing in the last 20 years, it is that putting tobacco industry representatives on scientific committees is a bad idea.
ELLIOT: The debate now moves to the Senate, where its main opponent is North Carolina Republican Richard Burr. He says the FDA is the wrong agency to regulate a dangerous product.
Senator RICHARD BURR (Republican, North Carolina): It's foreign to the mission of FDA, which is to prove the safety and efficacy of the products that they regulate, more importantly at a time where they are challenged to meet the standard for food safety in this country, I don't know why we would overload them with a new responsibility.
ELLIOT: Burr is sponsoring a bill to create a separate federal agency for tobacco, but it has little support in the public health community. Daniel Smith with the Cancer Society is optimistic this will be the year Congress passes the FDA tobacco bill.
Mr. SMITH: While Senator Burr can threaten a filibuster, what matters in the Senate is if you have the votes.
ELLIOT: The bill had more than 60 co-sponsors in the Senate last year, including now President Barack Obama.
Debbie Elliot, NPR News, Washington.
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