House panel passes tobacco regulation
- March 5, 2009
WASHINGTON - A House panel passed a sweeping tobacco regulation bill Wednesday, putting it on pace for passage by the full House far earlier in the congressional session than last year.
After blocking repeated Republican attempts to delay or overhaul the legislation, the House Energy and Commerce committee voted 39-13 to give the Food and Drug Administration control over tobacco products.
The bill would impose restrictions on the marketing of cigarettes, cigars or smokeless tobacco and allow the FDA to regulate the content of cigarettes. The bill would bar the agency from regulating farmers or imposing a ban on tobacco products.
The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (H.R. 1256) is nearly identical to a bill the House passed by a wide margin last summer. Despite bipartisan support in the Senate, the bill did not receive action there last year, leaving the House action as the furthest point health advocates have reached in their decade-long fight for tobacco regulation.
Six Republicans joined the Democratic committee majority to send the bill to the full House.
Health advocates - feeling comfortable their bill will pass the House again this session - already were looking to the Senate, where they ran out of time last year.
“That cannot be allowed to happen again,” said Charles D. Connor, president of the American Lung Association.
Chairman Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., the bill’s chief sponsor, said the committee vote should lead to swift action by the House.
An aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who carried the bill in the Senate last year, said it was not clear whether a new bill would be introduced or whether the Senate would simply act on Waxman’s bill once it passes the House.
Among the alternatives rejected by the committee Wednesday was a 200-page amendment sponsored by Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., that would have combined smoking-cessation programs with research and marketing strategies to encourage smokers to use less harmful, smokeless products.
“It’s not the nicotine,” Buyer said, “it’s the smoke that kills.”
Buyer also introduced the amendment as a stand-alone bill (H.R. 1261) with Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C.
Despite the defeat of the Buyer amendment on a 34-18 party line vote, McIntyre said he and Buyer are committed to bringing their bill to the House floor.
McIntyre said he is more concerned about “keeping the FDA off the farm” than the marketing aspects of the bill. “The FDA is already clearly underfunded and understaffed.”
The Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina sent a letter to the state’s House delegation Tuesday, expressing its concern that “broad and sweeping authority of FDA will spell an end to the traditional tobacco farming enterprises as we know them today.”
The committee-passed bill would not allow the government to further regulate tobacco farmers.
Maura Payne, a spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., said Congress should still consider the Buyer-McIntyre bill. The North Carolina-based tobacco giant’s parent company, Reynolds American, owns smokeless tobacco maker Conwood Co., which sells Kodiak and Grizzly brands.
“This is important legislation that needs to reflect the most current input from the scientific community and others so that it has the potential to have a positive impact on public health.”
Bill Godshall, the executive director of Smokefree Pennsylvania, agreed with the Buyer-McIntyre bill’s push to smokeless products.
“It is proven to be less harmful than cigarettes, and the public needs to know it,” Godshall said. “Waxman’s bill treats all tobacco as if they’re equally bad, and that’s just not the case.”
Godshall said that just having the alternative bill debated Wednesday “is a huge step forward.”
“It may be the first time that some of the Democratic committee members had ever heard that smokeless products could be considered as reduced risk for tobacco users, particularly smokers,” Godshall said.
Many of the arguments were a replay of last year’s House committee debate - with Republicans saying the FDA needs to focus on its core mission before getting new powers.
The measure has split the tobacco industry, with industry giant Altria Group Inc. the lone company favoring the bill. Altria is the Virginia-based parent company of Philip Morris USA and UST Inc., the nation’s largest smokeless tobacco company.
In a statement, Altria expressed support for the bill and its “tough but reasonable” regulation of tobacco products. “We ... hope to see it signed into law.”
Competitors, including Reynolds American and Lorillard Tobacco have argued that the bill’s marketing restrictions and expansion of health warning labels to fill half the packaging of tobacco products would freeze the competitive market, favoring Philip Morris, the market leader.
Aides to Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., said he plans to introduce his own tobacco regulation bill in the Senate next week. Like the Buyer-McIntyre bill, it would put regulation within the Department of Health and Human Services, but not under the FDA. And like the Waxman bill, it would impose restrictions on advertising.
With Democrats winning expanded majorities in the House and Senate last fall, anti-smoking advocates remained confident that only the Waxman bill would move this year.
Democrats claim the FDA is the right agency to police tobacco and would pay for the regulation through a tax on cigarettes. It would start at about a penny per cigarette pack this year and go to at least five cents per pack within a decade, generating between $85 million and $712 million per year, according to committee staff.
A 62-cent tax increase on cigarettes - to $1.01 per pack - already was signed into law by President Barack Obama to pay for expanding health insurance coverage this year.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., called the expanded regulations proposed under the Waxman bill nonsense. “A better name for this bill would be the ‘Destroy North Carolina’s Small Tobacco Farmers Act,’” she said.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., who represents the largest tobacco-producing district in the country and serves on the commerce committee, praised the proposal for protecting tobacco farmers. The bill will allow farmers to “continue to earn a living ... so they can support their families and their communities,” he said.
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