WASHINGTON – House and Senate lawmakers of both parties introduced sweeping legislation Thursday to make tobacco subject to the kind of federal safety regulation that now applies to medicines and food, and they said prospects for action are the most favorable in years.
“This bill is long overdue, and this is the year, I believe, that regulation of tobacco by the Food and Drug Administration is going to become law,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a longtime nemesis of the tobacco industry who now chairs the Government Reform Committee.
If it gets to the House floor, its passage will be by a very large margin, said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, Waxman’s Republican co-sponsor. The legislation could garner enough support to override a veto, Davis predicted.
Although the White House has not supported similar legislation in the past, it’s not clear what position President Bush will take this time. Administration officials took a neutral stance on Thursday.
“We’re in the process of reviewing the legislation,” Health and Human Services spokeswoman Christina Pearson said. “As a general point on smoking reduction, I do want to note the substantial progress that has happened over the past 40 years.”
The tobacco industry is divided over federal regulation. Most major public health groups support it.
The bill introduced Thursday would grant the FDA legal authority to regulate nicotine. The agency had previously asserted it had such power, but the Supreme Court ruled that Congress must specifically authorize it.
Under the bill, the agency would also gain the power to restrict tobacco advertising, require stronger warnings on cigarette packs, mandate reductions in nicotine levels, regulate additives to tobacco products and set stiff penalties for selling to minors.
Smoking is a leading cause of cancer, heart disease and emphysema and is estimated to cause more than 400,000 deaths a year.
Two presidential candidates immediately signed on to the legislation: Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is expected to run, also supported it. Its principal sponsors in the Senate are Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John Cornyn, R-Texas.
The last major battle over tobacco regulation came in 2004, when a bill passed the Senate but faltered in the House, blocked by Republican leaders. The new Democratic leadership in both chambers is behind the legislation, advocates said.
“We’ve always had bipartisan support, but we didn’t have support from the leadership,” Waxman said.
The biggest cigarette company, Phillip Morris, favors the legislation, saying FDA oversight would give the industry a stable legal framework and could reduce harm from smoking. But many smaller companies oppose regulation, in part because they say it could create roadblocks to competition that would benefit Phillip Morris.