Smoking Out Tobacco Bills

Some lawmakers are wondering what it will take to get the White House and the Republican leadership to push for passage of needed tobacco legislation.

The bills in question would end agricultural subsidies for tobacco farmers and give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory authority over tobacco products. But various measures have foundered for lack of serious attention.

Aside from the obvious public-health benefit, creating stronger safety regulations for tobacco products would even help keep the tobacco companies from getting slapped with big jury fines in lawsuits by smokers. If the FDA sets standards on the levels of addictive nicotine, tobacco companies would be less liable. No wonder Altria Group Inc. (formerly Philip Morris), the world's largest cigarette manufacturer, favors FDA regulation.

Last October, the GOP chair of the Senate health committee proposed a bill to do just that, but the language was vague. And as some regulation-averse lawmakers argued over details (such as whether to restrict cigarette advertising to children), nothing got done.

A subsidy-ending bill supported by legislators from tobacco states would cost $15 billion to close up many US tobacco farms.But some critics say it doesn't have enough incentives for farmers to decrease production. Others say it's too generous.

Unfortunately, neither piece of legislation has the votes to pass on its own merits, at least in the House of Representatives. But as the House fiddles, the Senate at least has a plan - connecting the tobacco farmer buyout with FDA regulation in order to get both bills passed.

The possibility of close races in all tobacco-producing states should help prompt movement on these bills. Elected members of Congress in these states, if perceived as foot-draggers on this issue, could wind up out of a job.

For the public health, and for getting tobacco farmers off the federal dole, Congress should act soon.

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