Thursday, October 2, 2003

Talks to regulate tobacco industry break down along partisan lines

By Nancy Zuckerbrod
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Talks in Congress to regulate the tobacco industry broke down along partisan lines Wednesday, making it highly unlikely new restrictions would be imposed on the cigarette industry anytime soon.

Democrats and Republicans on the Senate health committee have been trying for months to negotiate a deal that would give the Food and Drug Administration oversight of cigarettes.

Late Wednesday, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the committee, sent Democrats a draft of what he said was his final legislative proposal.

But Democrats rejected the offer, saying it didn't go far enough.

"Unfortunately, the proposed legislation which Republicans put forth today falls far short of the strong FDA authority which is needed to effectively do the job," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the leading Democrat on the health committee. "A weak bill is worse than no bill at all because it would give the public a false impression that their health was being protected."

Democrats and anti-smoking advocates said they were upset about a provision in Gregg's bill to require the FDA to consider whether changes it ordered could make legal cigarettes so unpleasant that smokers would stop buying them.

Gregg argued that the provision would keep smokers from turning to a black market to get unregulated cigarettes.

Other areas of disagreement include how far states should be able to go in setting their own restrictions on the industry and whether tobacco companies can be sued for failing to adequately warn people about smoking hazards.

This latest effort by lawmakers to regulate the tobacco industry was the most serious in years.

Tobacco-state lawmakers who previously opposed FDA regulation said they would support it in exchange for financial assistance for tobacco farmers.

Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest cigarette maker and a major campaign contributor, also reversed its previous position and endorsed FDA regulation.

Other tobacco companies opposed the idea, saying the new advertising restrictions would make it harder to compete with industry leader Philip Morris.

The FDA asserted authority over cigarettes in 1996, but the Supreme Court later ruled that only Congress can give the FDA that power.

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