March 4, 2009 / 11:16 PM / 11 years ago

House panel approves FDA tobacco oversight

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration would gain new power to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products under legislation passed by a U.S. House of Representatives panel on Wednesday.

People smoke on the pavement outside of their office in Nice, southeast France, January 30, 2007. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The proposal, which passed 39 to 13 but must still win approval by the full House and Senate, would authorize the FDA to oversee the controversial, multibillion-dollar tobacco industry, including its advertisements and product designs. The FDA already oversees drugs, devices, most foods, cosmetics and animal drugs.

“Regulating tobacco is the single most important thing that we can do right now to curb the deadly toll of tobacco,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, who introduced the bill. A similar measure by the California Democrat passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate.

Giving the federal government authority over tobacco products would help curb smoking, which can cause a number of expensive and preventable health problems such as cancer, heart disease and other lung disorders, Democrats said.

The bill calls for a separate FDA center funded by user fees from tobacco companies to monitor ingredients, inspect manufacturing facilities, and oversee marketing. It does not allow FDA oversight of tobacco farmers.

Critics have expressed concern about the FDA’s ability to handle an entirely new industry given recent problems with contaminated peanuts and other foods. Last year, a widely used blood thinner was recalled over tainted ingredients from China.

“The FDA is the wrong agency at the wrong time to give this type of responsibility,” said Texas Rep. Joe Barton, the committee’s ranking Republican. Barton and other Republicans also said the measure could give the false impression that cigarettes are safe.

Industry reaction has been mixed, with the nation’s largest cigarette maker, Altria Group Inc’s Philip Morris unit, voicing support. Some smaller companies also back it, but others such as Reynolds American Inc’s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco unit say it would burden manufacturers, who would have to register with the FDA and keep various records.

Other makers include Vector Group Ltd’s Liggett Group Inc, Lorillard Inc’s Lorillard Tobacco Company, British American Tobacco Ltd, and Brown & Williamson.

After the vote Altria called the bill “tough but reasonable.” Other companies had no immediate comment.

Advocacy groups, including the American Lung Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, support the bill.

“Until Congress grants the FDA authority over tobacco products, the tobacco companies will continue their harmful practices that addict children and make it difficult for smokers to quit,” the two groups said in a joint statement along with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the American Heart Association.

Federal oversight would save $75 billion in healthcare costs by curbing smoking among youth, the legislation said.

The American Medical Association physicians’ group backs FDA tobacco oversight, but Joel Nitzkin of the American Association of Public Health Physicians’ tobacco task force said the bill does not do enough to prevent deaths or smoking.

Even if the full House passes the measure, it must still win Senate support before being considered by President Barack Obama, who has openly admitted his difficulties in quitting his smoking habit. Representatives for the White House have not said whether Obama would sign the legislation if passed.

Reporting by Susan Heavey, editing by Matthew Lewis

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