WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A House of Representatives committee on Wednesday passed a bill for the first time that would give the Food and Drug Administration broad authority to regulate tobacco.
Funded exclusively by millions of dollars of user-fees levied on the industry, the bill would give power to the FDA over cigarettes and other forms of tobacco, an idea backed by public health groups, some tobacco companies and many Democrats.
Supporters cited the grim public health toll of smoking, which is the biggest preventable cause of death in the United States, responsible for 400,000 deaths and $100 billion in health care costs annually.
“It’s hard to believe that the FDA regulates toothpaste but not cigarettes,” New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone said in backing the bill. “This will force companies to substantiate claims” about the risks of cigarettes, he said.
The bill passed the House Energy and Commerce committee in a 38-12 vote and would authorize the FDA to police cigarette labeling, restrict sales, prohibit flavored cigarettes and recall tobacco products seen as unreasonably harmful.
The FDA would also have to approve all new cigarettes and other tobacco products, and set standards for so-called reduced-risk products. The agency would not be empowered to ban cigarettes or require nicotine levels of zero under the bill.
Total fees to fund the new activities would be ramped up from $85 million in the first year to $712 million in the tenth year and beyond. The fees would be assessed based on market share per product for each tobacco company.
The bill’s most vocal proponent from industry has been the nation’s largest cigarette maker, Philip Morris, a unit of Altria Group Inc. The legislation has recently won support from a host of smaller tobacco companies and retailers.
After a decade of failed efforts in the House, backers said the tide has turned with most of the public opposed to smoking, and lawmakers less tied to tobacco interests.
“It’s a different day in Congress on tobacco,” said Gregg Haifley, director of federal relations with the Cancer Action Network. “Finally public health is winning.”
The bill is expected to pass the full House, but will face a tougher fight in the Senate where it is procedurally easier to block bills.
Last August, a Senate committee endorsed a similar bill with the support of health groups and Altria.
Since then, the bills have picked up significant bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. The House measure now has about 220 co-sponsors, while the Senate version has at least 55.
Some companies say the bill could spur industry consolidation because bigger companies would be best able to comply with it. A provision was added to the House bill requiring the Federal Trade Commission to study the impact the law would have on competition in the industry.
Some tobacco companies have opposed FDA regulation and the White House is wary of the idea.
A U.S. Health and Human Services spokesman said the Bush Administration has “significant concerns” about the bill, and is worried it would load new responsibilities on the FDA and possibly create a misconception that tobacco is safe.
FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush, has said the bill would be extremely difficult to implement.
Reynolds American Inc, maker of Camel cigarettes, staunchly opposes the bill, saying, like many Republican lawmakers, that the FDA is already stretched thin just regulating drugs and food.
Reynolds has been running advertisements in districts of lawmakers with tobacco interests.
“It’s not the FDA’s role in my opinion to be the cigarette cops on the beat,” said Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the ranking Republican on the committee.
Barton and some other Republicans suggested that another agency, such as the Federal Trade Commission, would be a more appropriate authority.
Parts of the bill giving smaller tobacco companies more time to comply and requiring foreign tobacco products to be subject to the same rules won over some prior opponents.
“In my home district of eastern North Carolina, tobacco is more than just an agricultural product, it is a livelihood,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat who now supports the bill.
Additional reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh, editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Tim Dobbyn