Senate Begins FDA Tobacco Control Debate

Agrees to start the debate; Budget Office says bill would add to deficit

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate began debate Tuesday on whether to grant the federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) new powers to regulate tobacco products, reported Reuters. In an 84 to 11 procedural vote, the Senate agreed to start debate, which could continue into next week. Democrats have said they have enough votes to approve the tobacco legislation, but the margin could be slim.

The bill would let the FDA oversee the packaging, marketing and manufacturing of cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Reaction from tobacco companies has been mixed. Altria [image-nocss] Group Inc's Philip Morris USA unit, the nation's largest cigarette maker, supports the bill. But several other companies, such as Reynolds American Inc's R.J. Reynolds Tobacco unit and Lorillard Inc's Lorillard Tobacco Co, do not.

President Barack Obama has said he supports the measure. Newly confirmed FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg also backs it, as do many advocacy groups such as the American Cancer Society.

A similar proposal has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives. Differences between the House and Senate versions would have to be worked out by congressional negotiators before a final bill could be signed into law by Obama.

Supporters of the bill say the new oversight will curb the tobacco industry's heavy marketing, which critics charge encourages children to smoke.

Lawmakers plan to pay for a new FDA tobacco division by imposing fees on companies, which must register with the agency and provide it with a list of all the products they make.

A report by the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan agency that analyzes legislation, said the bill would contribute an additional $900 million to the U.S. budget deficit between 2010 and 2019, adding that it is difficult to assess the financial impact reduced tobacco use would have on healthcare costs.

Opponents of the bill say money would be better spent on programs aimed directly at getting Americans to stop smoking. Some smaller tobacco manufacturers also say the requirements are a burden.

The Senate proposal would also require the FDA to oversee a growing number of other tobacco products, including dissolvable tablets, strips and toothpick-like sticks.