WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Senate committee approved legislation yesterday that, after decades of effort, would give the nation's top health agency broad regulatory authority over tobacco products, paving the way for additional restrictions on advertising, tougher warning labels, and reduced levels of addictive nicotine.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, had languished during Republican-majority rule of the House and Senate, unable to get time on a committee calendar and thwarted when passed from the floor. The bill that cleared a congressional panel yesterday in a 13-to-8 vote was the result of years of negotiations that forged an unlikely coalition uniting dozens of health groups with the tobacco giant Philip Morris to back giving the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products.
"This is the public health community speaking with one voice," said Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which endorsed the bill. "With all the provisions we have in the tobacco bill, we have a real opportunity to save a generation of Americans from a lifetime of addiction and certain death."
The FDA can regulate such nicotine-replacement products as gums and patches, but it lacks regulatory oversight over cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. It cannot police misleading claims or secret industry efforts to boost nicotine levels, critics say, and it cannot block tobacco sales to children.
Kennedy said the tobacco legislation would gain additional power through a 61-cent per pack increase in tobacco taxes to finance a $35 billion boost in funding for children's health. The Senate measure, which has broad support, is expected to be approved this week.
When cigarette prices increase by 10 percent, children's smoking drops 6.5 percent on average, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Under the Kennedy legislation, the FDA could silence those ads aimed at children - as well as block the sale of candy-flavored cigarettes used to hook children on smoking.
Under Kennedy's bill, the FDA could reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes, but only Congress could ban cigarettes entirely.
The American Cancer Society says tobacco use causes nearly 1 in 5 deaths in the United States, or about 440,000, each year and raises health-care bills by $167 billion annually. While smoking is at its lowest levels since World War II, more than 20 percent of Americans smoke. Nearly all started as children; the average smoker takes his or her first puff at age 13 and smokes every day by age 15.
Yesterday's slim majority, however, came as Republican-sponsored amendments loom, changes that could affect the bill's main intent.
Such opponents as Sen. Richard M. Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, a tobacco-producing state, offered dozens of amendments at committee level and promised more from the Senate floor to chip away at the bill's scope. Kennedy rejected most of the amendments, saying they would undermine the legislation.
Burr has said that he might offer his own bill or use procedural tactics to stall Kennedy's measure on the Senate floor. He also criticized the excise tax increase as a mechanism to fund children's health care and expand FDA staffing sufficiently to regulate tobacco.
"The honey pot right now is tobacco excise taxes," Burr said in a recent interview. "The fact is, they'll find - if they implement those - that there will be a reduction in tobacco usage."
He said the move would imperil state budgets that rely on tobacco taxes to ease shortfalls. "This truly does have some unintended consequences."
Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, denounced the Kennedy bill as "fundamentally flawed," and said it merely locks in place Philip Morris' dominant market share.
"If this bill is good for Big Tobacco, how can it be good for public health?" said Enzi, a Wyoming Republican whose mother and father died smoking-related deaths. "The fact is it can't. This bill is nothing more than a Marlboro Protection Act."
Philip Morris USA, manufacturer of Marlboro, supports the bill, a stance at odds with industry rivals and companies that manufacture smokeless tobacco.
Enzi says his bill would cut smoking rates faster than Kennedy's measure and would reduce nicotine content by about 98 percent over a generation. But tobacco opponents say Enzi's true aim is to strip away Republican support for the Kennedy bill.
Kennedy has 53 co-sponsors, including 12 Republicans.
"Ultimately, we're going to have to get 60 votes," he said. "All of that is doable."