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House Passes Tobacco Regulation Bill

April 2, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

With somewhat less support than last year, the House has once again approved the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (H.R. 1256) which would put tobacco products under regulation from the Food and Drug Administration, but would not allow the agency to ban the products altogether. In the previous session of Congress, the House passed the bill by an overwhelming vote of 325-102; despite an expanded Democratic majority in the House, today’s vote was 298-112.

Twenty-one representatives did not vote today either way and support from Republicans dropped off from 96 “aye” votes last session to only 70 today. According to the OpenCongress Wiki, the bill would provide the FDA the legal authority to do the following:

  • Prevent tobacco advertising that targets children
  • Prevent the sale of tobacco products to minors
  • Help smokers overcome their addiction
  • Identify and reduce the toxic constituents of tobacco products and tobacco smoke for those who continue to be exposed to them
  • Regulate claims about reduced risk tobacco products
  • Prevent the tobacco industry from misleading the public about the dangers of smoking.

This would include establishing stronger warning labels on tobacco products, more stringent regulations of the advertising and sales of tobacco products, the gradual reduction and removal of hazardous ingredients from cigarettes, and new standards for tobacco products labeled “reduced risk” or “low tar.”

One of the most controversial provisions is the Special Rules for Cigarettes section, which bans all flavored tobacco except menthol:

Beginning 3 months after the date of enactment of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, a cigarette or any of its component parts (including the tobacco, filter, or paper) shall not contain, as a constituent (including a smoke constituent) or additive, an artificial or natural flavor (other than tobacco or menthol) or an herb or spice, including strawberry, grape, orange, clove, cinnamon, pineapple, vanilla, coconut, licorice, cocoa, chocolate, cherry, or coffee, that is a characterizing flavor of the tobacco product or tobacco smoke. Nothing in this subparagraph shall be construed to limit the Secretary’s authority to take action under this section or other sections of this Act applicable to menthol or any artificial or natural flavor, herb, or spice not specified in this subparagraph.

The New York Times had a great piece on this provision last year, explaining that menthol, the most popular cigarette choice of African-American smokers, was protected in the bill to win support from big campaign donors like Altria Group. Since the bill would put new limits on cigarette advertising, it will likely help Altria’s Marlboro brand stay on top of the industry because smaller brands would have fewer advertising opportunities.

President Obama was a co-sponsor of the bill when he was in the Senate and is hoping the Senate will pass the bill so he can sign it into law.

Getting the bill through the Senate, however, may be difficult. The two senators from the highest tobacco producing state, North Carolina, strongly oppose the bill. Sen. Richard Burr [R, NC] is threatening a filibuster and may be backed up by Sen. Kay Hagan [D, NC]. They are pushing a separate bill, the Federal Tobacco Act of 2009, that would set up a separate agencies to oversee tobacco. The Burr-Hagan agency would be empowered to restrict some advertising and require ingredients to be listed on packs, but they would not have the power to ban products or restrict certain ingredients.

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