A U.S. Senate committee endorsed legislation on Wednesday allowing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products, a proposal supported by public health groups and the nation's largest cigarette maker.
The bill would allow the FDA to restrict tobacco advertising, prevent cigarette sales to minors, mandate stronger warning labels, bar misrepresentation of tobacco's dangers and order removal of dangerous ingredients from cigarettes.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee voted 13-8 for the legislation that would also set standards for reduced-risk tobacco products, which could not be marketed as safer than regular cigarettes without FDA verification.
Lawmakers amended the bill to require more prominent and graphic warning labels on cigarette packages and included clove cigarettes in the legislation's ban of flavored cigarettes.
The bill authored by Massachusetts Democrat and committee chairman Edward Kennedy, along with Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, is co-sponsored by 52 senators and now goes to the full Senate for a vote. A similar bill has been introduced in the House.
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.
Tobacco companies would fund the FDA's oversight of their industry with an initial figure of $450 million in annual fees -- about 2.5 cents per pack.
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.
Smoking is the number one preventable cause of death in the United States, leading to more than 400,000 deaths and $96 billion in health care costs each year, the group says.
Critics of the bill say it overburdens an already short-staffed FDA and fails to address how to help current smokers quit.
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, said Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican.
Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, the senior Republican on the Senate 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. unit Philip Morris USA, maker of top-selling Marlboro cigarettes, supports the bill, while other tobacco companies such as Reynolds American Inc. oppose it.
We remain steadfast in our support of effective regulation of tobacco products, Altria said after the committee vote.
Industry analysts have said Philip Morris backs the measure because it would help protect the company's dominant market share by muting rivals' advertising messages.
We need to fight the war on tobacco head on, not sign a peace treaty with Philip Morris, a company that perpetuates and profits from the crisis, Enzi said.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the FDA had overstepped its authority when it issued unprecedented, sweeping curbs on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco in 1996.
In response, anti-smoking activists and their congressional allies proposed legislation that would give the FDA the power it needed to oversee tobacco products. But such a bill has never made it through Congress.
FDA spokeswoman Heidi Rebello said the agency has no position on the legislation.
The Department of Health and Human Services had no immediate comment.