|The House of Representatives could vote as early as this week on legislation that would give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products.
"Our nation's leaders have a moral obligation to do all they can to protect Americans, particularly children, from tobacco addiction and the health consequences of smoking," said Curtis Ramsey-Lucas, managing director of resource development for National Ministries of American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. "This legislation would in no small measure move our nation forward in achieving this goal."
The bill would allow the FDA to require larger health warnings on cigarette packages and ban most flavor additives added to tobacco except menthol. It has broad bipartisan support, but it isn't clear if there are enough votes to override an anticipated presidential veto.
Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said last week the White House "strongly" opposes giving the FDA authority over tobacco, claiming it would overburden the agency and send a mixed message that if tobacco is FDA approved then it must be safe.
Supporters of the bill, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, say that while the FDA regulates food products like macaroni and cheese, tobacco, the nation's leading cause of preventable death, is unregulated.
Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. has signed several letters about the issue to members of Congress.
"No other issue has united faith leaders of all different political stripes like reducing smoking by authorizing the FDA to regulate tobacco products," Medley said. "We all know this is a moral issue whose time has come."
H.R. 1108, titled the "Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act," passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee April 2 a 38-12 vote. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has 233 co-sponsors in the House. A companion Senate bill, S. 625, has 56 co-sponsors but is currently in limbo because its chief sponsor, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is battling cancer.
American Baptist leaders urged church members to contact their senators and representatives and ask them to support both measures.
Waxman said last Thursday that House Democrats could bring his bill to the floor this week, but it isn't certain. It was held up in the committee process, mainly over how the bill would be paid for.
The Congressional Black Caucus is divided over the bill. Some African-American lawmakers want to see menthol outlawed along with other flavor enhancers, while others say removing the menthol exemption would kill the bill altogether.
Menthol brands make up about 28 percent of America's $70 billion cigarette market, according to the New York Times, while about 75 percent of black smokers choose menthol brands.
A recent study found that tobacco companies manipulate the menthol content of cigarettes in an effort to target younger smokers. The report, published in the American Journal of Public Health, said the tobacco industry promoted cigarettes with lower menthol levels, popular with adolescents and young adults, while providing brands with higher menthol levels to long-term smokers.
Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the study demonstrates "how the current lack of regulation allows tobacco companies to manipulate their products in ways harmful to health and to control what is in their products and what they disclose about them."
Menthol is one way for younger smokers to mask harshness and discomfort of cigarettes until they get used to inhaling smoke.
One tobacco company, Philip Morris, supports the legislation, because it would not allow the FDA to outlaw tobacco or nicotine completely. Most tobacco companies, like R.J. Reynolds, oppose it.
H.R. 1108 would allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to regulate tobacco products through the FDA. It would grant the FDA authority to require that tobacco companies disclose contents of tobacco products and reduce or remove harmful ingredients, stop tobacco companies from misleading the public about the health risks of their products and require larger, more effective health warnings on tobacco packaging."
It would also ban cigarettes containing artificial flavors--like strawberry, cinnamon or coffee--that appeal to younger smokers.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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Bill Granting FDA Regulation of Tobacco Clears Committee