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Congress grants FDA oversight of tobacco

WASHINGTON (BP)–Congress gave final approval June 12 to legislation authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products.

The House of Representatives voted 307-97 for the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act a day after the Senate passed the same bill in a 79-17 roll call. The measure now will go to President Obama, who commended Congress about an hour after the House vote and said he would sign it into law.

The bill — supported for years by health, education and religious organizations while being opposed by many groups affiliated with the tobacco industry — will empower the FDA to control the manufacture, promotion and sale of such products as cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

“Over the passage of time, hundreds of thousands of American lives will be saved because of the approval of this legislation,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“The passage of this legislation is the culmination of a long-term effort by the ERLC and many other groups to bring greater regulation to the tobacco industry,” Land said. “It’s a scandal that the industry has been virtually unregulated until now.”

Tobacco use not only causes about 400,000 deaths a year in the United States, but its annual health-care cost is $96 billion, it has been estimated. Each day, more than 3,500 under-age children try their first cigarette, the bill’s supporters said.

Among its provisions, the measure, H.R. 1256, would:

— Limit the advertising and promotion of tobacco products, especially to children.

— Crack down on tobacco sales to minors.

— Ban candy-, fruit- and spice-flavored cigarettes.

— Prohibit the use of such terms as “light” and “low tar” with tobacco products.

— Require larger health warnings on tobacco packaging and in advertising.

— Mandate tobacco companies reveal the contents of their products.

— Authorize the FDA to require such changes as the reduction of nicotine and the removal or reduction of other harmful elements.

The Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, a leader in lobbying for the bill, called it “the strongest action Congress has ever taken to reduce tobacco use, the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.”

“Forty-five years after the first U.S. Surgeon General’s report linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer, the most deadly product sold in America will no longer be the least regulated product sold in America,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids.

Advocates for the legislation contended there would continue to be a lack of regulation of tobacco unless the FDA receives such authority. Foes of the bill said it would give the FDA responsibility outside its normal purview and would overburden the agency.

Sen. Richard Burr, R.-N.C., led opposition to the bill in the Senate. Senators defeated in a 60-36 roll call an amendment by Burr that would have given an agency in the Department of Health and Human Services sole responsibility for tobacco regulation.

The Southern Baptist Convention has passed tobacco-related resolutions dating to 1932. A 1984 resolution urged churches and other SBC entities to encourage Southern Baptists not to use tobacco. It also called on Southern Baptist farmers not to raise tobacco but to grow another crop when feasible. In 2005, the SBC adopted a resolution urging an increased effort to reduce smoking by teenagers.

The ERLC’s Land was one of the leaders of a religious coalition that supported the legislation the last several years. Other organizations in the 25-member Faith United Against Tobacco included the United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches USA, National Council of Churches, Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterian Church (USA), Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Islamic Society of North America.

In the House, 237 Democrats and 70 Republicans voted for final passage of the bill, while seven Democrats joined 90 GOP members in opposing it. In the Senate, Kay Hagan of North Carolina was the only Democrat to join 16 Republicans in voting against the measure. Supporting the bill in the Senate were 54 Democrats, 23 Republicans and two independents.

In early April, the House voted 298-112 for similar legislation. The Senate passed a slightly different version June 11, requiring another vote by the House.

Members of the House passed a similar bill in July 2008, but the Senate failed to approve such legislation.

Senate passage of the bill marked the first time that chamber had approved such tobacco legislation without additions supporters saw as a compromise. Senators approved a 2004 bill that gave the FDA oversight of tobacco, but that bill also included money for tobacco farmers. The final version approved by Congress dropped the FDA language but included a $10 billion buyout of tobacco farmers.
Tom Strode is Baptist Press Washington bureau chief.