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Senate Votes to Give Regulators New Powers Over Tobacco

A bill that would give the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco products and marketing moved closer to becoming law when the Senate approved the measure Thursday. Judy Woodruff gets two views on the legislation.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    And now the regulation of tobacco.

    "NewsHour" health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser begins our coverage.

  • MAN:

    The bill, as amended, is passed.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Today's Senate vote was a ringing endorsement for strict regulation of the tobacco industry. The 79-to-17 vote came after nearly a decade of debate.

  • SEN. MICHAEL B. ENZI, R-Wyo.:

    This bill is the only bill we will consider seriously that will make it difficult for kids to — to get tobacco and make it difficult for them to start smoking.

  • SEN. RICHARD BURR, R-N.C.:

    It is a myth for us to believe the authors of this bill that, by simply dumping this in the FDA, somehow, youth prevalence of smoking goes down. It is a joke. It is a joke. And the public health community has now recognized this.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    The new legislation, called the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act — would give the Food and Drug Administration greater authority than ever before to regulate the production, sale, and marketing of tobacco products.

    Under the bill, the FDA could measure and restrict the amount of harmful chemicals, including nicotine, that could be put into tobacco products. It would also strengthen health warnings on product labels, ban the use of terms like light and low tar in advertising, and forbid the use of all flavorings, except menthol.

    The bill was championed by Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, but treatment for brain cancer has kept him sidelined. So, Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd has shepherded the bill through the Senate.

  • SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD, D-Conn.:

    The FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, regulates not only all the food and other products that we ingest. It regulates cosmetics. But, for 50 years, the tobacco industry has successfully fought the ability to regulate tobacco products. And, yet, 3,000 to 4,000 kids start smoking every day in this country. Four hundred thousand a year die, as you already heard from Sherrod Brown.

    It has been incredible to me that for more years than many to believe and count, we have had an industry that has gone basically unregulated.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Philip Morris, the country's largest tobacco maker, supported the bill, while its competitors opposed it, arguing that the new legislation would restrict the introduction of new less harmful tobacco alternatives and unfairly lock in Philip Morris' market share.

    In the Senate, North Carolina Republican Richard Burr led the opposition and offered a competing bill, which the Senate rejected on Tuesday.

    North Carolina is the nation's biggest tobacco producer, and home to the second- and third-largest cigarette makers, R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard.

    Burr argued that the FDA was ill-equipped to regulate tobacco.

  • SEN. RICHARD BURR:

    That they have got the best and the brightest addressing food safety. Well, they have already flunked that several times just in the last three years, and we have all dealt with the consequences of it.

    But think about what we are getting ready to do. We are getting ready to make it worse. We are getting ready to — to take an agency that has a seal of approval, a gold standard, and we are getting ready to say, OK, we want you to maintain that gold standard on drugs, and food, and biologics, and medical devices. But we understand you can't hold tobacco to the same threshold.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Efforts to put big tobacco under the regulation of the federal government came after a 1994 congressional hearing, when industry executives went on the record, in spite of all scientific evidence to the contrary, and said this:

  • SEN. RON WYDEN, D-Ore.:

    Do you believe nicotine is not addictive?

  • MAN:

    I believe nicotine is not addictive, yes.

  • MAN:

    I believe that nicotine is not addictive.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    In 1996, President Clinton, flanked by his then FDA chief, Dr. David Kessler, announced steps to regulate tobacco as a drug, on the grounds that, despite industry contentions, nicotine was, indeed, addictive.

    Subsequent class-action lawsuits filed by state attorneys general against big tobacco resulted in some $200 billion in payouts to states, some of which funded smoking-reduction campaigns.

    In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the FDA didn't have the authority to regulate tobacco, making congressional action necessary. Until now, the tobacco lobby has successfully blocked any legislative attempts to more tightly regulate the industry. And former FDA Commissioner Kessler says the bill passed today has been a long time coming.

    DR. DAVID KESSLER, former commissioner, Food and Drug Administration: We don't know everything we should about how to regulate the product. But the great thing about this legislation is, it allows the FDA to gather that evidence of how to regulate the advertising, how to change the product, so that fewer and fewer people will smoke.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    A similar version passed the House in April. And President Barack Obama, who struggles with his own smoking habit, has said he will sign it into law.