In a sharp turnaround, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to provide full funding for states to enforce a new federal ban against sale of tobacco products to underage buyers.
Less than two months ago, senators voted 52-48 to kill an amendment that would have provided $34 million to state enforcement agencies charged with carrying out a Food and Drug Administration prohibition on cigarette and chewing-tobacco sales to anyone under 18.
But a slight change in the amendment’s wording, coupled with public outrage over a $50 billion tax break conferred on Big Tobacco in the recent tax-and-budget compromise, prompted the reversal in the Senate.
When Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, brought up the proposal for a second look, senators voted 70-28 against another effort to kill it - then passed the amendment by a voice vote. Only a couple of dissenting voices were faintly audible on the final vote.
“This is just the first step in a big battle,” Harkin said, “but it’s a great step.”
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said the Senate’s action was the first major vote against the tobacco industry since 1987, when his amendment to bar smoking on airliners was adopted.
Lautenberg also said Wednesday’s vote could be the latest sign of the tobacco industry’s weakening grip on Congress. He predicted it would embolden industry critics to seek even stronger sanctions against tobacco companies in a pending settlement that Congress is to examine this fall.
“The tide is changing on this issue,” Harkin agreed. “You’ll soon see efforts to overturn the $50 billion tax deal.”
And the industry’s $368 billion settlement with states to pay for the health costs wrought by smoking “could be in for some rough sledding here,” Harkin added.
In terms of Congress’ internal dynamics, the vote will give the Senate a stronger hand when it goes to a conference with the House on a farm spending bill later this month. The Harkin amendment was attached to the farm bill.
The House’s version of the FDA enforcement provision gives states $24 million. The original Senate rendition provided $4.9 million. Harkin’s amendment boosts that to $34 million and is meant to ensure compliance with the new FDA rule by all 50 states.
At the moment, Harkin said, only about 10 states are effectively enforcing the ban on tobacco sales to teenagers.
The FDA’s ban, which went into effect last February, bars retailers from selling tobacco products to anyone under 18, and requires sellers to check photo identifications of any buyer who appears to be younger than 27.
“Every day we delay our fight against the illegal sale of tobacco to minors,” said Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., “another 3,000 young people become daily smokers, and up to half of them become addicted. A year from now, over a million youngsters will have taken up smoking. It’s unconscionable to allow that to happen.”