WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should be given the power to regulate tobacco products and cigarette taxes should be hiked as part of a government campaign to reduce smoking, an expert panel recommended on Thursday.
"These dangerous products are essentially unregulated," Richard Bonnie, a University of Virginia law professor and chairman of the 14-member Institute of Medicine panel, told reporters.
Congress and the president should give the FDA broad regulatory power over tobacco marketing, packaging and distribution, the panel's report said.
The FDA should be able to limit the type and number of stores that can sell tobacco products and gradually cut the allowable nicotine content to reduce the addictive power of cigarettes, it added.
The FDA regulates nearly a quarter of the U.S. economy, including medicines, most foods and medical devices.
The tobacco industry, which has wielded considerable political clout, now faces only limited piecemeal regulation by the government, including the Federal Trade Commission.
"If tobacco cigarettes were now being introduced into the marketplace for the first time, there is no doubt that they would be banned under any one of several consumer protection statutes," Bonnie said.
The Institute of Medicine provides advice on health issues to U.S. policymakers. The report was requested by the American Legacy Foundation, a tobacco control advocacy group created in 1999 under a settlement between various state attorneys general and the tobacco industry.
"This report should be a wake-up call for elected officials who have been dragging their feet in addressing the nation's tobacco problem," said American Heart Association chief M. Cass Wheeler.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the FDA could not regulate tobacco without congressional action.
While the rate of smoking in the United States has fallen nearly 60 percent since the mid-1960s, about 21 percent of the country's adults still smoke, the panel noted.
"Tobacco use causes 440,000 deaths every year in the United States, and secondhand smoke claims another 50,000 lives every year," it said.
The government should substantially increase the federal excise tax on cigarettes and states with lower tax rates should raise them to ensure nationwide parity to prevent interstate cigarette smuggling, the panel urged.
The experts backed smoking bans in all nonresidential indoor settings, including restaurants, bars, malls, prisons and health care facilities.
They also called for prohibiting Internet-based sales of tobacco products and direct-to-consumer shipments, as well as requiring retail outlets that sell tobacco products to get a license to do so.
Tobacco advertising and promotional displays should be restricted to text-only, black-and-white formats, and the industry should be barred from using misleading terms such as "mild," "light" and "ultra-light" to describe their products, the panel said.
Cigarette makers also should be forced to place large pictorial warnings on the hazards of smoking on all packs and cartons, similar to those in Canada, it said.
Legislation before Congress would give the FDA regulatory power over tobacco, and is supported by public health advocates as well as Altria Group's unit Philip Morris USA, the maker of Marlboro and other brands of cigarettes.
"It's disgraceful that year after year, Congress has bowed to the tobacco lobby and refused to act," said the bill's sponsor Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.
"Hopefully, the IOM's powerful call to action will be the irresistible force that finally compels the Senate and House to act."