WASHINGTON – Seven years after being rebuffed by the Supreme Court, anti-smoking advocates are again seeking federal regulation of tobacco, a step they say is needed to deter children from lighting up and to get smokers to quit.
"It would have a huge public-health impact. This is a product that when used as directed is lethal," said Wendy Selig of the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network.
The group is among those pushing to give the Food and Drug Administration authority over cigarettes and other tobacco products — just like the regulatory agency already has over countless other consumer products. A bipartisan group of lawmakers was to reintroduce legislation Thursday to do so.
"We are quite excited about the possibility that we may very well get it done this time around," said Joel Spivak, a spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
For decades, the FDA said it lacked authority to regulate tobacco so long as cigarette makers did not claim that smoking provided health benefits. In 1996, it reversed course and cited new evidence that the industry intended its products to feed the nicotine habits of the roughly 45 million Americans who smoke.
Tobacco companies sued, and the case eventually landed in the Supreme Court. In 2000, the court ruled 5-4 that Congress did not authorize the FDA to regulate tobacco.
Previous legislative efforts to give the FDA that authority have faltered. In 2004, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, called the legislation an effort to "ban tobacco in America."
The new bill is fundamentally the same legislation as introduced in the last Congress. Yet supporters believe it will fare better in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate.
"What's different is the leadership has changed and the guys running the show now are supportive," Spivak said.
The bill would allow the FDA to act to discourage children from starting smoking and encourage adults to quit, in part by reining in advertising, bolstering existing sales restrictions and strengthening warning labels. It also would allow the FDA to order the elimination or reduction of harmful and addictive ingredients in tobacco.
The agency couldn't ban nicotine outright, but the bill would give it the power to reduce its levels.
Furthermore, the bill would require tobacco companies to disclose what tobacco products — and their smoke — contain. Second-hand smoke, for example, contains 250 chemicals known to be toxic or carcinogenic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The FDA had no immediate comment on the proposed legislation. Many tobacco companies have opposed the legislation in the past, with the exception of Philip Morris USA, maker of Marlboro and other cigarette brands.
Parent company Altria Group Inc. had no comment on the yet-to-be introduced bill, but spokeswoman Dawn Schneider said the company has supported FDA tobacco legislation in the past.
Experts believe some provisions of the bill would favor the most entrenched players in the industry, like Philip Morris, which enjoy strong brand loyalty that could allow them to weather advertising restrictions without losing market share.
The bill being offered Thursday, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, was proposed by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, along with Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Tom Davis, R-Va.