MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
On Capitol Hill today, a Senate committee considered an idea that's been kicking around Washington for more than a decade: having the Food and Drug Administration regulate tobacco. People who have been working for decades on this issue, say for the first time there is a real chance the FDA could make rules about how cigars, cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are manufactured, advertised, and sold.
NPR's Joanne Silberner reports.
JOANNE SILBERNER: At least one man has been waiting for this day for a long, long time, former FDA Commissioner David Kessler.
Mr. DAVID KESSLER (Former Commissioner, FDA): I mean FDA regulates everything that is put on the skin, everything that we eat, all our medicines - we take vaccines, drugs - the FDA doesn't regulate tobacco? The most dangerous of products, and there is no federal regulation.
SILBERNER: In the 1990s when Kessler was FDA commissioner in both Republican and Democratic administrations, he fought to regulate cigars, cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. There were hearings on Capitol Hill. Tobacco products were declared drug delivery devices, addictive and lethal, and the agency tried to restrict advertising in marketing. But the tobacco industry filed suit, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court - in the end Kessler and the FDA were swatted down for the time being.
Mr. KESSLER: What the Supreme Court said was that FDA under the current law, did not have jurisdiction. Four justices said yes, the FDA did, five said no -said Congress can change the law if it wants to regulate cigarettes.
SILBERNER: Over the years, some in Congress tried. They were blocked by Congress members from tobacco growing states and by Republicans who objected to giving a government agency more power. Now the Democrats are in control, and today, an influential Senate committee considered new legislation. It would allow the FDA to restrict advertising, limit sales of tobacco to minors, control what the tobacco companies say about the safety of their products, and order the reduction of dangerous components of tobacco, such as carcinogens and nicotine.
Long-time tobacco opponent Alan Blum actually testified against the legislation, saying smokers might be falsely reassured if the FDA is involved.
Mr. ALAN BLUM (Anti-tobacco Activist): If consumers are told that one, two or even 22 cancer causes in tobacco smoke have been reduced they're going to assume that a problem has been taken care of. They're going to believe that cigarettes are safer, and they're going to continue to smoke.
SILBERNER: And Republican Senator Mike Enzi said he doesn't think the FDA, which had come under harsh criticism of late, could handle the extra work.
Senator MIKE ENZI (Republican, Wyoming): The FDA is overworked and underfunded.
SILBERNER: But others said that $300 million in fees from tobacco companies would enable the agency to do the job. This time around the tobacco industry appears to be resigned to some sort of government oversight. Tommy Payne is an executive vice president for Reynolds America, which makes Camel, Kools and Winston.
Mr. TOMMY PAYNE (Executive Vive President, Reynolds America): We believe that there is a need for a national regulatory policy regarding the manufacturing, the use and the marketing of tobacco products in the United States.
SILBERNER: He does, though, think the current legislation goes too far in limiting advertising, which he says will also limit competition between tobacco companies. And, he says, if the FDA dramatically reduces nicotine levels a black market in high nicotine cigarettes could develop, and there would be a drop in the money the states get from cigarette taxes.
Philip Morris, the nation's largest tobacco manufacturer has spoken out in favor of the bill. That support, plus the Democratic majorities in both houses are why many people are so optimistic, including former FDA head, David Kessler.
Mr. KESSLER: The only missing piece is it has to be enacted into law.
SILBERNER: Is this the time?
Mr. KESSLER: I think this is the time.
SILBERNER: The sponsors of the Senate bill promised to fast-track it and the strong bipartisan support in the House of Representatives as well.
Joanne Silberner, NPR News, Washington.