WASHINGTON – The Senate approved a plan to give the government broad new powers to regulate the cigarette industry, including the ability to eliminate harmful ingredients in tobacco products and forbid advertising that appeals to children.
The measure empowering the Food and Drug Administration (search) to oversee the sale, marketing and manufacturing of cigarettes was linked on the Senate floor Thursday to a $12 billion buyout of tobacco farmers.
An unlikely coalition of anti-smoking advocates and tobacco-state senators pushed to secure the 78-15 vote to add the twin measures to a massive corporate tax bill that the Senate then passed on a voice vote and sent to a House-Senate conference committee.
The House-passed tax bill includes a plan to pay tobacco farmers to leave the federal tobacco-growing system but does not give FDA any new powers. Health groups hailed the Senate action.
"This is the first time that any body of Congress has ever passed a bill giving the FDA authority over tobacco," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (search). "The fact that tobacco state members supported its passage could represent a sea change in attitudes if they continue to support it in conference."
Under the proposal, health warnings on cigarette packs would be made larger and would more explicitly state the dangers associated with smoking.
The FDA could not ban cigarettes. It also could not eliminate nicotine, though it could call for major reductions in the amount of the addictive substance found in tobacco products. The agency could order the removal of other harmful ingredients.
Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, who crafted the FDA measure with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, said the public would for the first time get details about what's in tobacco products. Under current law, there are very limited disclosure requirements placed on tobacco companies.
"Current law makes sure we know what's in products designed to help people quit smoking, like the patch or Nicorette (search) gum, but not the very products that get people addicted in the first place to cigarettes themselves," DeWine said.
Marketing terms such as "light" and "ultra-light" would be prohibited unless the FDA approved them. Studies have shown those cigarettes haven't reduced health risks faced by smokers.
The FDA asserted authority over cigarettes in 1996, but the Supreme Court later ruled that only Congress can give the FDA that power.
Philip Morris USA (search) is the only major tobacco company to support FDA regulation of cigarettes. Company executives say it could better communicate with customers about new, safer products in a regulated environment with clear, uniform rules.
The other major tobacco companies say the new advertising restrictions would make it harder for them to gain new customers while ensuring that Philip Morris retains its market share.
Those companies have supported the House buyout approach, which isn't linked to FDA regulation and would pay farmers $9.6 billion over five years with taxpayer money.
The $12 billion farmer buyout approved by the Senate would be paid for by an assessment on the companies.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was the lead sponsor of the Senate buyout. He called it "vital to the future livelihoods of our tobacco farmers and their families."
Farmers have been clamoring for a buyout in recent years after experiencing steep cuts in the amount of tobacco they can sell under the federal tobacco system, which sets price and production controls on U.S. leaf. The cuts have been due to increasing imports of cheaper, foreign tobacco and a decline in cigarette sales.
Government figures show a little more than 21 percent of adult Americans smoked last year, down from about 25 percent in 1997. More than 400,000 Americans die annually from smoking-related diseases.
The corporate tax bill that now includes the tobacco provisions was designed originally to end an escalating trade conflict with Europe. That bill would eliminate a tax break for exporters that has been declared an illegal subsidy in international trade courts, while also conferring new tax breaks on manufacturers.
The European Union (search) has slapped punishing tariffs on some American exports, which stand at 9 percent and increase by 1 percentage point each month until Congress eliminates the tax break.
Lawmakers predicted Thursday that the tax bill won't be completed until at least September, by which time American companies would be paying double-digit tariffs on some of their exports.