WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- House and Senate lawmakers of both parties introduced sweeping legislation yesterday to make tobacco subject to the kind of federal safety regulation that now applies to medicines and food, and said prospects for action are the most favorable in years.
"This bill is long overdue, and this is the year, I believe, that regulation of tobacco by the Food and Drug Administration is going to become law," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat who leads the Government Reform Committee.
"If this gets to the House floor, [its passage] will be [by] a very large margin," said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, Waxman's Republican co-sponsor.
The legislation could garner enough support to override a veto, Davis predicted.
Although the White House has not supported similar legislation in the past, it's not clear what position President Bush will take this time.
Administration officials took a neutral stance yesterday.
"We're in the process of reviewing the legislation," Health and Human Services spokeswoman Christina Pearson said. "As a general point on smoking reduction, I do want to note the substantial progress that has happened over the past 40 years. Though we must remain vigilant ... reducing the incidence of smoking in this country has helped us avert many thousands of cases of disease."
The tobacco industry is divided over federal regulation.
Most major public health groups support it.
The bill introduced yesterday would grant the FDA legal authority to regulate nicotine. The agency had previously asserted that it had such power, but the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that Congress must specifically authorize it.
Under the bill, the agency also would gain the power to restrict tobacco advertising, require stronger warnings on cigarette packs, require reductions in nicotine levels, regulate additives to tobacco products and set stiff penalties for selling to minors.
Smoking is a leading cause of cancer, heart disease and emphysema and is estimated to cause more than 400,000 deaths a year.
Three presidential candidates immediately signed on to the legislation: Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, and Barack Obama, a Illinois Democrat. Its principal sponsors in the Senate are Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican.
The last major battle over tobacco regulation came in 2004, when a bill passed the Senate but faltered in the House. It was blocked by Republican leaders, including former Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. The new Democratic leadership in both chambers is behind the legislation, advocates said.
"We've always had bipartisan support, but we didn't have support from the leadership," Waxman said.
The biggest cigarette company, Phillip Morris, favors the legislation, saying that FDA oversight would provide the industry with a stable legal framework and could reduce harm from smoking. But many smaller companies oppose regulation, in part because they say it could create roadblocks to competition that would benefit Phillip Morris.
Congressional debates over health issues often turn personal, and this one promises to be passionate.
Davis said his father died of emphysema. Another co-sponsor, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, a Illinois Democrat, recalled that his father was a two-pack-a-day Camel smoker and died of lung cancer.
"If we can regulate nicotine in gum, in patches and in nasal sprays, why can't we do it in cigarettes?" Davis said.
Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar writes for the Los Angeles Times.