Tobacco's Road to Regulation

The Senate needs to clear the stubborn smoke of resistance from its backrooms and give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco. Even Philip Morris (now Altria), the world's biggest cigarette manufacturer, wants safety regulations of its products - to avoid more profit-sapping penalties from lawsuits brought by smokers.

Last week, the GOP chair of the Senate health committee offered a draft of just such a proposal. But Democrats and public-health advocates said it didn't go far enough, claiming vague language could keep the FDA from taking steps to make cigarettes safer (by forcing, for instance, the manufacture of a new generation of so-called "reduced risk" cigarettes). The tobacco companies countered, arguing the FDA might be able to outright ban cigarettes for adults, by requiring, for instance, that nicotine levels be reduced to zero.

Talks on Capitol Hill broke down over issues such as how much authority states should have in the bill, and whether restrictions on advertising to children should remain in place (of course they should).

Lawmakers from tobacco-producing states (supported, of course, by tobacco companies) said they would support FDA regulation in exchange for getting rid of an old federal subsidy program that ultimately stands to increase tobacco company profits.

Another bill authorizes a $13 billion buyout package for tobacco farmers that replaces the old federal price-support system for their crops. The buyout would be paid for by the tobacco companies themselves, and likely raise the cost of cigarettes to pay for it. The move is a good idea; it could help tobacco growers step toward making their product a free-market commodity.

In fact, such a political quid pro quo just might work to best serve the public for now. Without it, Capitol Hill observers note the votes to pass either effort just wouldn't be there.

Still, the potential of a compromise has made for the most serious effort to regulate the tobacco industry in years. Now that it looks as if it could actually happen, Congress must not lose this opportunity to carve out a deal that takes tobacco farmers off the federal dole, and improves public health.

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