Senate panel backs FDA oversight of cigarettes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday backed legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration power to control the advertising and manufacturing of cigarettes and other tobacco products.

A woman smokes a cigarette indoors in Berlin September 19, 2003. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

The bill next goes to the full Senate for a vote. A similar measure passed the House of Representatives in April. The House and Senate would need to work out any differences before sending the legislation to President Barack Obama, who supports the effort.

Passed mostly along party lines in a 15-8 vote, the measure would give the FDA new authority over the multibillion-dollar tobacco industry to restrict advertising to children, dictate package warnings and control nicotine content.

“All of us believe the time has come to act to protect our nation’s children ... Every day we delay another 3,000, 4,000 children begin to smoke,” said Senator Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who led the two-day meeting to finalize Senate health committee’s version of the bill.

Supporters said the effort would help curb smoking particularly among children by bolstering package warnings and preventing tobacco companies from targeting them with advertising.

About 2.7 million U.S. children currently smoke, Dodd said.

It would also help tackle the biggest cause of preventable death in the United States, Democrats said. About 400,000 Americans die each year from cancer, heart disease and other tobacco-related illnesses, government statistics show.

The legislation does not allow the FDA to regulate farmers or tobacco itself, but would give it power over a growing number of smokeless tobacco products such as dissolvable tablets, strips and toothpick-like sticks. Both Reynolds and Star Scientific Inc have both recently introduced such smokeless products made with finely ground tobacco.

But Wyoming Senator Michael Enzi, the committee’s top Republican, said it would be more effective to spend money directly on efforts to curb smoking rather than regulate a dangerous product that people already know is unsafe.

“We need to fight the issue head on, not tinker at the margins with cigarette composition,” Enzi said.

Opponents also questioned whether the FDA could even handle regulating an entirely new industry after struggling in recent years with outbreaks of tainted food and drug safety issues.

Reaction from tobacco companies has been mixed, with the nation’s largest cigarette maker, Altria Group Inc’s Philip Morris unit, backing the plan amid opposition from several smaller makers such as Reynolds American Inc’s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco unit and Lorillard Inc’s Lorillard Tobacco Co.

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids President Matthew Myers, whose advocacy group is one many backing the bill, applauded the committee’s vote.

Reporting by Susan Heavey; editing by Leslie Gevirtz