WASHINGTON — Fewer than 20 percent of Americans smoke; the links between tobacco use, disease and death are clear; and most states, including Virginia, now have gone smoke-free in many public places.
Tobacco, however, still has a powerful influence over politicians from traditional leaf-growing states, and the industry won't go down quietly even as Congress moves closer to adding tobacco to the list of products the Food and Drug Administration can regulate.
In North Carolina, where aging tobacco shacks still dot the coastal plains and brick the smokestacks of old manufacturing plants rise above Piedmont towns, Republican Sen. Richard Burr and first-year Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan have teamed up for their first joint legislation in Washington. They submitted this week a bill to protect the state's tobacco interests from stringent oversight.
Their bill, called the Federal Tobacco Act of 2009, does far less to regulate tobacco than a more popular bill now gaining traction in Congress does. That one, by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., passed a key committee last week, paving the way for a full vote in the House of Representatives.
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Burr and Hagan would create a separate agency that they say would do a better job of monitoring the tobacco industry than the FDA could.
Burr has been contemplating such legislation for two years. But he said in an interview that now is the right time because of the FDA's fragility over issues such as salmonella in spinach and peanut butter.
"It's proven how challenged the FDA is to do the core mission they're there for," Burr said.
"It's a way of life. It's a legal product," Hagan said in an interview. "I don't want to do anything that would harm the industry in North Carolina."
Under the Burr-Hagan bill, a new agency would restrict some advertising and require a list of ingredients on cigarette and smokeless tobacco packaging. It would not restrict the products' content.
Hagan said that Americans already know tobacco is dangerous, and they don't need more regulation.
"I think the labeling and the disclosure is a key point in this bill," Hagan said. "It's in the purview of the company to decide what's in their product."
Farmer Pender Sharp, who grows 500 acres of tobacco in Wilson, N.C., said he fears that oversight by the FDA could put him and other farmers out of business. The Burr-Hagan bill, he said, could protect him.
"It refreshes my belief in the political system and the common-sense leadership we have in North Carolina," said Sharp, who's president of the North Carolina Agribusiness Council.
Across Capitol Hill, Waxman's more restrictive bill would allow the FDA to dictate the levels of toxic ingredients, such as nicotine, in tobacco. It also would restrict most advertising that can reach children and would give the agency authority to develop new rules.
The agency already regulates nicotine in smoking cessation aides such as patches and gum, and there's no reason it can't do the same for cigarettes and snuff, said Danny McGoldrick, the vice president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington.
"It doesn't make sense to send (regulation) to a new agency," McGoldrick said of the Burr-Hagan bill.
Their new agency would cost about $100 million, far less than the billions that eventually could be used to help the FDA regulate tobacco under the Waxman bill. Both versions impose fees on tobacco companies to pay for the regulation.
Waxman's bill overwhelmingly passed the House last year, but a Senate version faltered because of time constraints.
Burr threatened last year to bring the Senate to a standstill through a filibuster and other parliamentary maneuvers to stop the FDA measure, sparking a rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
This week, Hagan joined Burr's fight. She stopped short of saying that she'd filibuster FDA regulation, saying only, "I would certainly work to make sure (the Waxman bill) does not get passed in the Senate."
Hagan's predecessor, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, also opposed such oversight.
The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act
Sponsors: Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Todd Platts, R-Pa.
Oversight: Would allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco.
Cost: $85 million the first year, and higher each year up to $712 million in 2019 and thereafter. Would be paid for by tobacco companies.
Advertising: Would ban outdoor advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, ban brand-name sponsorships, limit advertising to black-and-white text at stores and in magazines with teen readership. Would prohibit use of "light," "mild," "low-tar" and other descriptions. Would allow flexibility to restrict other marketing.
Disclosure: Would require disclosure to FDA of all ingredients.
Labeling: More than 30 percent of the package would be devoted to government warnings.
Content: Would prohibit fruit or sweet flavorings. Would allow regulation on amounts of nicotine or other toxic ingredients without eliminating them.
Safer products: Would require companies that market safer cigarettes to prove their claims.
The Federal Tobacco Act of 2009
Sponsors: Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C.
Oversight: Would create a new agency within the Department of Health and Human Services.
Cost: $100 million a year. Would be paid for by tobacco companies.
Advertising: Would prohibit all outdoor advertising, brand-name sponsorships of events and use of "light," "mild," "low-tar" and other descriptions. Would only allow magazine advertising in publications with adult readership.
Disclosure: Would require disclosure to federal agency of all ingredients.
Labeling: Would require disclosure to public of all ingredients on back of package.
Content: Would require cigarettes to have 20 milligrams or less of tar per cigarette, beginning in 2010. No further regulation of content.
Safer products: Would requires consultation with the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for products that claim to be safer. Would create a ranking of relative risk among various products.
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