Lawmakers Urge Tougher Rules On Sale, Promotion of Tobacco

Pending health reform gives tobacco industry's opponents fresh hope that Congress may approve legislation altering how companies do business

SHOULD tobacco be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?

If Rep. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma and Rep. Dick Durbin (D) of Ohio have their way, it will be.

Yesterday, Representatives Synar and Durbin introduced legislation that, if passed, would have a wide impact on the tobacco companies.

"It is very clear as we move forward to a national health-care bill and a new commitment to preventative medicine, the largest drain on our system is tobacco," Synar said in an interview.

According to health-care groups, some 400,000 people per year die because of smoking- related illness. In addition, Synar notes that smoking costs the economy about $65 billion a year in lost productivity and medical payments.

Although Synar has failed to convince Congress to approve similar legislation in the past, he says this time "I have a president and first lady who are committed to health-care reform and realize we have to deal with tobacco."

The bill itself is wide-ranging. "This law fundamentally changes the way the tobacco industry is allowed to do business," says Scott Ballin, a vice president of the American Heart Association. For example, the proposal would require the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which administers the FDA, to promulgate rules governing the manufacture, distribution, sale, labeling, and advertising of the product.

Among the points of the proposed legislation:

* A federal minimum age of 18 years to purchase tobacco. Currently, 49 of 50 states have such a minimum age. However, antitobacco advocates point out the laws are not enforced since the average age when tobacco use begins is 13.

The new law would require the FDA to implement the regulations. For example, the FDA could ban vending machines if it determined underage youth routinely obtained cigarettes from such devices. All tobacco products would have to be marked, "Federal law prohibits sale to minors."

* The tobacco industry would be prohibited from giving out free samples or distributing discounted cigarettes as a result of coupons. Tobacco companies would also be banned from sponsoring sporting and cultural events if the logo of the tobacco product is on display.

* All tobacco products would have to provide a list of the chemical additives and constituents in the product and its smoke.

* No tobacco product could have an implied or direct health claim. Thus, low-tar and nicotine cigarettes would be banned unless the HHS secretary approved the use after testing.

To assist in new regulations, an advisory committee of 10 experts in such fields as nicotine addiction and toxicology would be established. However, HHS could not outlaw tobacco simply because of the substance's reported adverse health effects.

Advocates of the legislation admit it will be an uphill battle to pass the legislation. There have been other attempts dating back to the early 1960s. Almost all have been defeated.

However, the antitobacco advocates say they believe the public has an interest in seeing tobacco regulated. Yesterday, the Coalition on Smoking OR Health released a Gallup survey that found 68 percent of those polled believe the FDA should regulate tobacco products in the same way drugs are controlled. A majority (53 percent) believe tobacco advertising should be banned, including 50 percent from tobacco- growing states.

The Tobacco Institute, the lobbying arm of the industry, does not see the need for the legislation. "Our position in the past has been that the tobacco industry is regulated by government agencies from seed bed to sales counter by a virtual alphabet of government agencies," says Brennan Dawson, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based institute. She adds, "Obviously, we will have to look at the bill."

Although no hearings have been scheduled for the legislation, Synar expects Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee, to begin hearings once the health-care reform act passes.

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