US House vote has FDA closer to power over tobacco

* Measure moves to Senate; Obama supports

* Industry split; Marlboro maker Philip Morris in favor

* Backers say bill will curb smoking

* Critics wary of giving struggling FDA new responsibility

(Adds lawmaker comments, reaction)

By Lisa Richwine and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON, April 2 (Reuters) - A measure giving the Food and Drug Administration power to regulate the manufacturing and marketing of cigarettes cleared the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.

The legislation, passed by a 298-112 vote, must win the Senate’s approval before going to President Barack Obama for his signature. The White House supports the effort.

The bill would give the FDA a range of authorities over the multibillion-dollar tobacco industry. The agency could restrict advertising of cigarettes and other tobacco products to children, require larger package warnings and force companies to lower -- but not eliminate -- nicotine content.

Supporters said the effort would reduce smoking, the biggest preventable cause of death in the United States. An estimated 400,000 Americans die each year from tobacco-related illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease.

“Today we have moved to place the regulation of tobacco under FDA in order to protect the public health, and now we all can breathe a little easier,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a Democrat and the bill’s leading proponent, said after the vote.

Despite tobacco’s deadly effects, tobacco “continues to have less regulation than a head of lettuce” or pet food, Democratic Rep. Jared Polis said in debate on the bill Wednesday.

Opponents questioned the FDA’s ability to take on added responsibility after struggling in recent years to handle tainted foods and risky medicines. Under the bill, fees from tobacco companies would fund an FDA center to oversee marketing, monitor ingredients and inspect manufacturing sites.

Critics also said having the FDA regulate tobacco products could give the false impression that cigarettes are safe.

“The FDA is strapped for resources and failing in many of its core missions,” said Republican Rep. Mike Rogers. The bill would allow the agency to regulate for the first time “a drug that if used as directed will kill you.”

Industry reaction has been mixed.

The nation's largest cigarette maker, Altria Group Inc's MO.N Philip Morris unit, supports the bill and said in a statement that it would continue to back it through the legislative process.

Some smaller companies also back it, but some such as Reynolds American Inc's RAI.N R.J. Reynolds Tobacco unit say it would burden manufacturers by making them register with the FDA and keep various records.

The bill "would create insurmountable barriers to the development of reduced-harm tobacco products or alternatives," Lorillard Inc's LO.N Lorillard Tobacco Co said.

Other makers include Vector Group Ltd's VGR.N Liggett Group Inc and British American Tobacco Ltd BATS.L.

The FDA moved to regulate cigarettes in 1996 but the Supreme Court ruled the agency overstepped its authority and needed Congress to grant new powers over tobacco.

A number of advocacy groups hailed the House action, including the American Medical Association and the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids.

“This legislation is critical to combat smoking-related diseases and help get cigarettes out of the hands of children,” AMA President Dr. Nancy Nielsen said.

Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, chairman of the Senate health committee, said he was confident the Senate would pass the measure quickly and send it to Obama to sign into law.

The White House issued a statement on Wednesday saying the Obama administration strongly supported the measure. The president has admitted his own struggles to quit smoking.

The House, in a separate 284-142 vote, defeated an alternative offered by Republican Rep. Steve Buyer to establish a new tobacco regulation center outside the FDA but within the Department of Health and Human Services. (Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)


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