Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
The days of packaging and promoting tobacco products with virtually no meaningful restrictions appear to be nearing a smoky end. In a resounding vote, the House has taken the first step toward reining in the products linked to the deaths of more than 400,000 Americans each year.
Just hours before departing for a two-week spring recess, the House gave its near 3-to-1 approval to a bill to give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) power to clamp down on the sale, marketing and manufacturing of the cancer-causing products. Thanks in part to your calls and e-mails, Congress is now halfway to bringing much needed oversight to tobacco.
The lopsided vote April 2 on the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (H.R. 1256) was particularly impressive given that a rival bill threatened to siphon votes. The second bill, introduced by Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, which went down in defeat handily, would only slap a bandage on the nation’s tobacco problem. While the House-passed H.R. 1256 would fund tobacco-product oversight within the FDA with user fees shouldered by manufacturers, the alternative bill would create a special oversight office in the Department of Health and Human Services with no reliable funding stream. The alternative measure also would fail to allow for regulation of smokeless tobacco, a key provision of the House-passed FDA bill. Such distinctions could bear significant impact on safeguarding real lives.
Perhaps the most important components exclusive to the FDA bill are the means to bridle marketing to children. With roughly 90 percent of adult smokers having begun puffing in high school or earlier, youth are a tobacco cash cow waiting to tap. The industry’s marketers know this well. That’s why a significant chunk of Big Tobacco’s $13 billion in marketing each year is infused into candy-flavored cigarettes and in advertisements in billboards near schools or magazines widely read by teens. Those slick schemes would essentially be stopped under the bill.
The legislation is long overdue. Abysmally high rates of addiction to tobacco products and equally frightful levels of disease and death that often follow should be indicators that something must be done. Then there are the staggering medical costs associated with tobacco use. At some $96 billion a year, the health care costs alone to treat cancer and other ailments from years of tobacco use are reason enough to bring accountability to the industry.
But the legislative road ahead in the Senate will not be paved without its share of barricades. One such obstacle could come from a senator of the nation’s leading tobacco-producing state, North Carolina, home to tobacco giants R. J. Reynolds Tobacco and Lorillard Tobacco. Sen. Richard Burr ( R ), who has introduced a competing bill much like Buyer’s flawed House bill, is expected to lay down a speed bump by threatening to filibuster. To overcome the filibuster and cut off debate, the Senate needs to muster 60 votes. As it now appears, the number of senators supporting the bill registers very close to that magic figure.