|An American Baptist leader welcomed passage by a House panel of a bill that would grant the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products.
The Democrat-controlled Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday voted 18-9 to pass The Family Smoking Prevention & Tobacco Control Act. Companion Senate legislation cleared a committee Aug. 1.
"This action moves Congress a critical step closer to enacting legislation that can protect children from tobacco addiction and save countless lives," said Curtis Ramsey-Lucas, national coordinator for public and social advocacy with American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.
ABC/USA and American Baptist Churches of the South are among 35 faith organizations supporting the bill, which supporters say would give the FDA ample resources to bring about fundamental change in regulation of tobacco. In all more than 600 public-health and other organizations support its passage.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says tobacco use is the nation's leading preventable cause of death, killing more than 400,000 people and costing nearly $100 billion in healthcare costs each year. Despite that, tobacco products are virtually unregulated. Tobacco companies take advantage of the lack of regulation, the advocacy group contends, to design and market products to children, sustain nicotine addiction and discourage current smokers from quitting.
The House bill, sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and and Tom Davis, R-Va., would grant the FDA the authority to restrict tobacco advertising and promotions, especially to children. It would stop illegal sales of tobacco products to children and ban candy-flavored cigarettes, which advocates say are starter products for young new smokers.
The law also would require changes in tobacco products, such as reducing nicotine levels and prohibit unscientific health claims of so-called "reduced risk" products that discourage tobacco users from quitting or encourage new users to start.
It would require stronger health warnings on tobacco labels and prohibit terms like "light", "mild" and "low-tar" that could mislead consumers into believing that certain cigarettes are safer than others.
Ramsey-Lucas, whose Office of Governmental Relations is housed in American Baptists' National Ministries, said ABC/USA has been working for several years with a broad-based religious coalition called Faith United Against Tobacco to draw attention to the need for FDA oversight of tobacco products.
Currently tobacco is exempt from basic FDA health protections that apply to consumer products such as food, drugs, cosmetics and even dog food. "We find it unconscionable that the FDA can ensure the safety of products such as macaroni and cheese, but currently has no authority over tobacco," Ramsey-Lucas said.
According to a national poll conducted last year, 70 percent of voters support Congress passing the legislation, and even a majority of smokers. While both Democrats and Republicans support the bill, Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, said it will have "a hard fight going forward," based on a contentious subcommittee meeting marked by repeated Republican attempts to delay the legislation.
William Core, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said there are "few actions Congress can take that would make a bigger difference for our nation's health.
The measure divides even tobacco companies.
Philip Morris said FDA regulation would "establish a comprehensive national tobacco policy" and "bring predictability and clear standards" to the tobacco industry.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company said it would give "overly broad authority" to the FDA and raise constitutional issues about commercial free speech.
Reynolds said the bill would unfairly benefit its competitor Philip Morris, the cigarette-industry leader, by not allowing Reynolds to inform smokers about the relatively lower risk of smokeless tobacco products. The company also expressed concern about "what appears to be developing as a rush to judgment and passage by Congress."
Throughout the two days of debate, according to Media General News Service, Republicans largely sided with Reynolds, using similar arguments as the tobacco giant during the subcommittee's discussions.
Philip Morris executives denied the bill favors their company, because their customers would pay the lion's share of new fees to fund the expanded FDA powers.
Ramsey-Lucas said he is "encouraged" that the House bill passed its first legislative hurdle. "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," he said.
The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D.-Mass., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.