The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed legislation that for the first time would subject the tobacco industry to regulation by federal health authorities charged with promoting public well-being.
Its backers call the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act "landmark" legislation. While the bill appears to have enough support to pass this year, it's unclear whether the Senate will have time to act, and the Bush administration issued a veto threat Wednesday.
The 326-102 House vote signaled solid bipartisan support for the measure, with 96 Republicans breaking with President Bush's position to vote in favor of the bill. Both presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., back the legislation.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., worked for more than a decade to get the House to pass tobacco regulation.
"This is truly a historic day in the fight against tobacco," Waxman said. "But it took us far too long to get here."
The bill would further tighten restrictions on tobacco advertising and impose new federal penalties for selling to minors. But its most far-reaching provisions would give the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco, from cigarettes to new kinds of smokeless products.
While the agency could not outlaw tobacco or nicotine, it could demand the reduction or elimination of cancer-causing chemicals in cigarette smoke. The bill would prohibit candy flavored cigars and cigarettes, and would give the FDA authority to ban menthol — by far the most commonly added flavoring.
Opponents of the bill say having a public health agency regulate tobacco would send the wrong message. Besides, they argue that the agency is overwhelmed dealing with food and drug safety problems, and doesn't need complicated new responsibilities.
"In short, what we don't need is creating at the FDA a new draconian bureaucracy, since they're already overburdened and have more work than they know what to do with," said Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Despite decades of health warnings and smoking bans in most indoor spaces, about one in five adults still smokes. Smoking related-illnesses, including cancer and diseases of the heart and lungs, claim an estimated 440,000 lives a year, more than 10 times the number who die in traffic accidents.
The bill represents a compromise between major tobacco control groups and Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest tobacco company. The maker of Marlboro cigarettes broke with most of its peers in the industry to support the legislation. Other big companies, including R.J. Reynolds — the maker of Camel cigarettes — remain fiercely opposed.
Public health advocates supporting the bill say regulation will slowly but surely put pressure on the industry, reducing the overall number of smokers and the harm that is caused by tobacco use.
"When you think about it, we regulate pet food, cosmetics, orange juice and many other products," said Cass Wheeler, CEO of the American Heart Association. "We're regulated in every other area and unregulated in tobacco products. But tobacco causes more preventable deaths than anything else."
Philip Morris, however, is hoping the legislation could lead to a new market in federally certified, reduced-risk tobacco products. The bill sets up a process for the FDA to scientifically assess manufacturer claims that certain cigarettes are less risky.
The legislation appears to set a high bar to such claims. Not only must a reduced-risk product "significantly" reduce harm to tobacco users, but it also must "benefit the health" of the entire population. A less risky cigarette that enticed nonsmokers to light up might not meet that test.
Nonetheless, Philip Morris has invested heavily in a new research center to develop less harmful tobacco products. "Our reduced harm research is a big focus for the company," spokesman Bill Phelps said.
Wall Street market analysts predict the legislation will have no major immediate impact on the industry, except to cement Philip Morris' position as the market leader, since the bill's advertising restrictions tend to undercut the competition.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who smokes, said he didn't need the federal government to tell him it was bad for his health.
"This is a boneheaded idea," Boehner said. "How much is enough? How much government do we need?"
But some supporters said the bill was more about protecting children than adults. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said tobacco use has become synonymous with rugged independence and a refutation of authority, traits that he said many teens desire.
"In large part, the marketing tactics by tobacco manufacturers fanned the flames of youthful angst," Davis said.
A potentially thorny issue as the bill heads to the Senate will be its treatment of menthol, a highly popular flavoring with black smokers. The National African American Tobacco Prevention Network has withdrawn its support for the bill, saying an outright ban on menthol is needed to protect the health of black communities. But with menthol brands accounting for more than one-quarter of cigarettes, Philip Morris' support for the legislation could be in question if the Senate bans the flavoring.
The bill calls for an FDA advisory committee to issue recommendations on methanol in cigarettes within one year of its establishment and requires the agency to publish an action plan for restricting the promotion of methanol and other types of cigarettes to youth.