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    A Bad Week for Tobacco

    Last week saw the Senate pass a measure to increase taxes on cigarettes to fund children's healthcare with enough majority to overcome a presidential veto. Meanwhile, another Senate committee approves FDA legislation of tobacco.

    WASHINGTON -- The Senate was not shaken by veto threats from President Bush last week, as it approved a bipartisan bill that would provide health insurance for children in low-income families, The New York Times reported.

    The vote -- at 68 to 31 -- was more than enough to overcome any veto given by the president, the report stated. The White House has said the bill "goes too far in federalizing health care."

    The bill, which now goes to the president, would increase spending on the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program by $35 billion over the next five years, through increasing the federal excise tax on cigarettes by 61 cents.

    "Covering these children is worth every cent," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who helped create the program 10 years ago.

    Meanwhile, the House of Representatives passed a larger bill, which gives negotiators a challenge to try working out differences between the two measures, the report stated.

    The House bill, which passed on a vote of 225 to 204, would increase SCHIP spending by $50 billion over the next five years. That bill also requires increasing the federal excise tax on cigarettes by 45 cents per pack. It also reduces federal subsidies paid to insurance companies offering private health plans to Medicare beneficiaries, the report stated.

    However, strong commitment by Democratic leaders ensures a compromise will be reached before the SCHIP program expires on Sept. 30. But any compromise will likely be unacceptable to President Bush, the report stated.

    If Bush vetoes the bill, expect to hear the issue arise in the 2008 presidential and congressional campaigns, as a part of a broader debate on universal coverage for health care, the Times reported.

    In the final Senate vote, 18 Republicans and 2 independents joined 48 Democrats in supporting the legislation. All the no votes were cast by Republicans.

    Meanwhile, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee signed legislation allowing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate tobacco products through the restriction of advertising, the prevention of cigarette sales to minors and by mandating stronger warning labels, banning misrepresentation of tobacco's dangers and the removal of dangerous ingredients from cigarettes, Reuters reported.

    The committee voted 13-8 for the legislation, which would also set standards for "reduced-risk" tobacco products that could not be marketed as safer than regular cigarettes without such FDA verification.

    Lawmakers amended the bill to require more prominent and graphic warning labels on cigarette packages, similar to rules set in Canada, and included clove cigarettes in the legislation's ban of flavored cigarettes, the report stated.

    The bill -- authored by committee chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), along with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), is co-sponsored by 52 senators -- now goes to the full Senate for a vote. A similar bill has been introduced in the House, the report stated.

    "Giving FDA authority over tobacco products will not make the tragic toll of tobacco use disappear overnight," Kennedy said. "However, FDA action can play a major role in breaking the gruesome cycle that seduces millions of teenagers into a lifetime of addiction and premature death."

    Under the bill, tobacco companies would fund FDA oversight with an initial $450 million in annual fees -- about 2.5 cents per pack, according to Reuters.

    Supporters of the bill believe this action could prevent smoking.

    "The bill has the potential to save more lives than any other action that Congress has taken," Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, said after the vote.

    However, critics believe the FDA does not have the resources to oversee the tobacco industry.

    "I don't believe that the FDA can take on this added responsibility when it can't do all the things it needs to do now," Hatch said.

    Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), senior Republican on the panel, argued that FDA approval of cigarettes would make people think tobacco products can be safe.

    "Trying to make cigarettes safer through a billion-dollar bureaucracy is a waste of time and money," Enzi, who opposed the bill, said in a statement.

    Altria Group Inc., parent company to Philip Morris USA, maker of top-selling Marlboro cigarettes, supports the bill, while other tobacco companies such as Reynolds American Inc. oppose it, according to the report.

    "We remain steadfast in our support of effective regulation of tobacco products," Altria said after the committee vote, Reuters reported.

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