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Kennedy Wants to Fast Track Bill for Regulating Tobacco

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) will “fast track” legislation that would empower the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco because he believes it’s likely to pass the new Democratic Congress.

A senior aide to Kennedy said today, the lawmaker favors quick work on the bill because Democrats’ control both chambers and a leading opponent, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), has left Congress.

A previous effort in 2004 failed, but the changed Congressional landscape “make all the difference, it’s day and night.” the Kennedy aide said. The aide added the legislation had already been vetted by lawmakers in 2004 and would be almost identical to the failed 2004 bill.

Kennedy said he expects to mark up the legislation by this summer.

The Massachusetts Democrat leads a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, including Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who want to give the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products, including limitations on advertising. The bill, S. 625, was introduced Feb. 15. A House companion, H.R. 1108, was introduced the same day.

Adding tobacco to the FDA’s purview is expected to be the largest expansion of agency authority in three decades, said Stephen Northrup, a senior government relations manager for the law and lobbying firm Arent Fox. The bill likely will result in a new regulatory center at the agency and a few hundred new employees, the former health policy staff director for HELP said.

The cost of the new program is estimated to be $350 million. Tobacco companies would shoulder the cost through a fee based on their market share, the Kennedy aide said.

However, other lawmakers question whether the legislation may have the unintended effect of putting the government’s seal of approval on cigarettes and other tobacco products.

HELP ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), a frequent collaborator with Kennedy on legislation, said FDA approval of these products will send the wrong message.

“The FDA approves cures, not poisons,” Enzi said at the hearing. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act “would gut the authority that Congress has bestowed and staunchly defended for the FDA, the authority to remove health threats from the marketplace.”

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who represents a tobacco-producing state, argued that additional regulations were unnecessary. Tobacco is “the most regulated industry in America today” and already faces restrictions on advertising from the Federal Trade Commission, he said.

Other lawmakers, such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), said they believe that Congress should take a more direct role by mandating that tobacco companies reduce the amount of carcinogen in their products by a date certain.

“You’re going to trust an agency to do what we don’t have the guts to do as a Congress,” said Coburn, a physician. “Let’s go for the gold” by reducing these toxins, Coburn added.

The bill is intended to curb the number of children who take up smoking, Kennedy and others said. Tobacco products are responsible for 400,000 deaths each year, according to the American Heart Association.

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