Anti-smoking forces won a long-awaited victory Thursday as the House passed legislation that would give the federal government key controls over the tobacco industry for the first time.
The measure, passed 298-112, gives the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate — but not ban — cigarettes and other tobacco products.
The Senate could take up its version of the bill later this month, and supporters are confident they can overcome opposition from tobacco-state senators. The White House supports the legislation, a shift from the Bush administration which threatened to veto a House-passed measure last year.
President Barack Obama has spoken publicly about his own struggles to kick a smoking habit.
"This is truly a historic day in the fight against tobacco, and I am proud that we have taken such decisive action," said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the bill's sponsor. "Today we have moved to place the regulation of tobacco under FDA in order to protect the public health, and now we all can breathe a little easier."
Waxman and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., have promoted legislation giving the FDA regulatory powers over tobacco products since the Supreme Court in 2000 ruled that the agency did not have that authority.
That ruling came after years of lawsuits and debate on the issue, including Waxman's memorable 1994 hearing where the heads of big tobacco companies testified that nicotine was not addictive.
Waxman's Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act wouldn't let the FDA ban nicotine or tobacco outright, but the agency would be able to regulate the contents of tobacco products, make their ingredients public, prohibit flavoring, require much larger warning labels and strictly control or prohibit marketing campaigns, especially those geared toward children.
Kennedy plans to introduce his version of the bill after Congress returns from its April recess. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., is expected to lead the opposition, but supporters are confident they can clear the 60-vote threshold needed to break a filibuster.
"FDA regulation of cigarettes — the most lethal of all consumer products — is long overdue," Kennedy said Thursday. "I am confident that the Senate will approve it expeditiously."
Opponents from tobacco-growing states such as top-producing North Carolina argued that the FDA had proven through food safety failures that it's not up to the job. They also said that instead of unrealistically trying to get smokers to quit or prevent them from starting, lawmakers should ensure they have other options, like smokeless tobacco.
That was the aim of an alternate bill offered by Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., who would leave the FDA out and create a different agency within the Health and Human Services Department. His proposal failed on a 284-142 vote.
"Effectively giving FDA stamp of approval on cigarettes will improperly lead people to believe that these products are safe, and they really aren't," Buyer said. "We want to move people from smoking down the continuum of risk to eventually quitting."
Major public health groups, including the American Lung Association and the American Medical Association, wrote to lawmakers asking them to oppose Buyer's bill, contending it would leave tobacco companies without meaningful regulation and able to make untested claims about the health effects of their products.
Buyer pointed out that Waxman's bill is supported by the nation's largest tobacco company, Marlboro maker Philip Morris USA. Officials at rival tobacco companies contend the Waxman bill could cement Philip Morris' market advantage.
Lorillard Tobacco Co. said in a statement that among other problems, Waxman's bill "leads to an industry monopoly by locking in the huge market share of our largest competitor while eliminating our ability to communicate with our adult smokers."