WASHINGTON -- The Senate took a step Tuesday toward giving the government some controls over the tobacco industry, increasing the chances a long-sought goal of anti-smoking advocates will be realized.
The 84-11 Senate vote to consider the bill came a month after the House overwhelmingly passed a similar measure giving the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Sixty votes were needed to open debate, and the success in reaching that threshold increase the likelihood that the Senate will move to a final vote by the end of the week or early next week. If the House concurs with the Senate measure, it would go to President Obama, who is ready to sign it into law.
Supporters of the FDA legislation, such as the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association, say controls over tobacco products would be a good place to start: They say tobacco use kills more than 400,000 Americans every year, resulting in $96 billion in health care costs.
"I can't think of a more significant step we can take on the eve of dealing with the health care debate," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. He urged prompt action, saying that in the two or three days the Senate talks on the issue, "close to 10,000 children will begin smoking, 1,000 of whom will become addicted every day."
Under the measure, the FDA could restrict tobacco marketing, specifically to young people; order changes to the ingredients in tobacco products; and require more prominent health warnings. It would ban remaining tobacco-brand sponsorships of sports and entertainment events and restrict vending machines to adult-only facilities. It would bar the use of "reduced harm" descriptions such as "light," "mild" or "low."
It would impose a fee on cigarette manufacturers to pay for FDA regulation. The Congressional Budget Office estimated it would cost $5.3 billion over 10 years to administer the program.
The FDA would not have the authority to ban cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Anti-smoking lawmakers have been trying for years to give the FDA regulatory powers, only to be blocked by tobacco-state colleagues, opposition from the tobacco industry and, during the administration of President George W. Bush, veto threats.
The need for congressional action became clear after a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court in 2000 rejecting FDA's claim it had authority to regulate tobacco products under current law.
Marlboro maker Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest tobacco company, voiced support for the House-passed bill, saying it endorsed "tough but reasonable federal regulation."
But Philip Morris' main rivals have argued that the legislation, with its new restrictions on marketing and advertising, would essentially lock in Philip Morris' share of the market.
North Carolina-based Lorillard Tobacco Co. said in a statement that the legislation would lead to an industry monopoly by "eliminating our ability to communicate with our adult smokers," create insurmountable barriers to the development of reduced-harm products, and an increase in black-market activities.
Opponents from tobacco-growing states have expressed concerns about job losses in their states and contended that the FDA has a poor track record in guaranteeing food safety and shouldn't be given responsibility to oversee tobacco products.
"It makes no sense to pile these new responsibilities into the FDA since the agency is barely able to keep up with its present duties," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.
The bill is H.R. 1256.
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