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WASHINGTON -- In a 298-112 vote, the House passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act yesterday, a bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to regulate the tobacco industry, according to an Associated Press report.
Under the bill, the FDA could not ban tobacco outright, but would have the power to block or approve new products, regulate products' ingredients and restrict advertising and marketing, as well as require larger warnings on packages. Flavored tobacco products would be restricted, with the preliminary exception of menthol, until a study on the additive is conducted. It would also require the FDA to set up a new Center for Tobacco Products, and its operations would be financed with fees paid by the tobacco industry, based on market share, according to reports published ahead of the passage.
During debate on the bill Wednesday evening, Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California and a main sponsor of the legislation, said, "We’ve come to what I hope will be an historic occasion, and that is finally doing something about the harm that tobacco does to thousands and thousands of Americans who die each year, and stopping the attempt to get our children to smoke. It has taken us far too long to get to this point.”
The House rejected an amendment by Republican Steve Buyer, of Indiana, to set up a government office other than the FDA to oversee tobacco and to promote smokeless tobacco products, the Times reported. Buyer argued the existing legislation would make it difficult for the FDA to approve new smokeless products, and help smokers reduce their risk of disease.
The Senate could take up its version of the bill later this month. Supporters are confident they can get Senate passage and President Barack Obama's signature on the bill, the AP reported. However, a closer battle is predicted in the Senate between public health advocates and some tobacco industry supporters, according to a report by The New York Times, as Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr, of North Carolina, has threatened a filibuster.
A prime sponsor of the Senate legislation, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, plans to introduce a version of the House bill later this month after a two-week congressional recess, the Times reported.
"The House’s quick action gives the Senate plenty of time to act this year," Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told the newspaper.
In the Senate, Burr introduced an alternative bill to promote "reduced risk” tobacco products rather than cracking down on new and existing products.
Philip Morris USA, a unit of Altria Group Inc., provided key support for the bill, arguing FDA oversight would create a stable framework to allow companies to make reduced risk products, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Most other tobacco companies, though, including Lorillard Inc., oppose the bill. They argue the legislation would allow Philip Morris, the largest cigarette maker in the U.S., to cement its lead, the report stated.
Upon passage of the bill, Lorillard Tobacco Co., the third largest cigarette maker in the U.S., issued a statement expressing its disappointment. The company said it "remains committed to supporting reasonable regulation of tobacco products," but noted regulation should be granted to an agency that can handle the new responsibility.
"Thrusting a completely new industry onto the FDA for it to oversee will further burden an agency that is already struggling to meet its core mission to protect America’s food and drugs at precisely the time when Americans need to rely on it the most," the company said.
The tobacco company also stated the current bill would "create insurmountable barriers" for the tobacco industry to develop and market reduced-harm products.
The passage of the bill comes one day after the largest tax increase on tobacco took effect, from 39 cents to $1.01 per pack of cigarettes. The overnight increase shocked tobacco users across the country, some into quitting the habit.
Quit smoking hotlines at Denver-based National Jewish Health received triple the usual number of calls Monday across its operations in six states—Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, New Mexico and Ohio. The volume, 2,317 on Monday, steadily increased all month ahead of the increase and as major tobacco companies raised prices in anticipation, according to a report by The Associated Press.
Michigan's quit line used all its funding in mid-March after logging more than 65,000 callers in five days. Arkansas halted general advertising of the quit line, to keep up with calls that rose from around 500 per week in January to more than 2,000 a week in mid-March, the campaign told the AP.
Philip Morris raised its prices on Marlboro and other brands' products by 71-cents per pack. At the time of increase, an Altria spokesman said in a published report the list price increases on cigarettes were primarily intended to cover the costs of the federal excise tax increase.
Later, an R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. representative said in published reports its 44- and 41-cent increases on certain brands had a net impact of being "aligned with our competition." At the same time, Lorillard raised prices for several of its brands by 71 cents per pack.
In Falls Church, Va., Bernardo Torres wanted to buy his aunt two cartons of little cigars the day before the tax increase, but the price at the CVS pharmacy there was too much for him—$134, according to a report in USA Today.
"I don't know what to do. This is going to hit her hard," Torres said in the report. His disabled aunt, 64, is a heavy smoker who won't quit.
The federal tax increase comes as several states consider raising their own excise taxes on tobacco. Budget shortfalls are pushing more than 20 states to look to tobacco for revenue sources.
"This is very historic," Matthew McKenna, director of the Office of Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told USA Today. In the past, a 10 percent price increase reduced cigarette consumption about 4 percent, according to McKenna, adding he expects the federal tax hike to prompt at least 1 million of the 45 million adult smokers to quit.
"We expect this to accelerate the decline" in cigarette consumption, Bill Phelps, spokesman for Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest tobacco company, said in the report.
Nik Modi, a tobacco industry analyst at UBS, expects cigarette consumption to drop by approximately 9 percent annually, according to the newspaper.
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