Anti-smoking lawmakers seek new FDA legislation
WASHINGTON, March 21 (Reuters) -Acting swiftly after the Supreme Court ruled that the Food and Drug Administration does not have authority to regulate tobacco, leading anti-smoking lawmakers on Tuesday urged the U.S. Congress to enact legislation giving t
``Now the finger is pointed appropriately at the Congress and we ought to get moving,'' said New Jersey Democrat Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
``The FDA clearly has the expertise to implement a fair plan to reduce youth smoking and help addicted smokers to quit,'' said Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Edward Kennedy, calling on Congress ``to act as soon as possible.''
The last big push to get tobacco legislation enacted collapsed in 1998, and it is far from certain that the Republican-controlled House and Senate would take up FDA legislation before the November 2000 elections, when both the House and the White House could change hands.
The Supreme Court ruling was a disappointment, though not necessarily a surprise, to health advocacy groups. From the American Medical Association to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, health advocates called on Congress to amend or modernize the FDA law to give the agency explicit authority over to tobacco.
The court ruled that the current statute does not give the FDA such authority, but Congress can change the statute. In wording hailed by the health advocates, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor writing for the court majority also called tobacco ``perhaps the single most significant threat to public health in the United States.''
Both President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore urged Congress to address FDA authority through legislation.
The likely Republican nominee Texas Governor, George W. Bush, put out a brief statement calling for tough laws to keep tobacco away from kids but did not specifically address the FDA controversy.
At least one lawmaker, California Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman immediately introduced two pieces of legislation, one a comprehensive anti-smoking bill and other one focusing on FDA authority.
Several senators, mostly liberal Democrats like Kennedy, said they were also ready to draft or introduce legislation. They may base it on a section of the comprehensive tobacco bill sponsored by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, which was defeated in the Senate two years ago amid a multi-million-dollar lobbying and advertising blitz by the tobacco industry.
The new legislation would be narrower focusing on the FDA.
But they acknowledged that unless Republicans come on board, it will be hard for Democrats to get action when they are in the minority.
Some lawmakers were openly skeptical that a Republican-controlled House and Senate would take up tobacco legislation before the November 2000 elections.
``With this majority?'' said Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin, referring to Republicans. ``They're brazen when it comes to standing up for their buddies in the tobacco industry.''
McCain, who championed the tobacco issue in 1997-98, said he would like to see FDA legislation ``but having encountered the influence of the special interests, especially the tobacco companies ... I have to say I'm not optimistic that we will be able to get that done until we have campaign finance reform.''
Tennessee Republican Sen. Bill Frist, who played a key role in drafting and negotiating the FDA language in the earlier McCain bill, was not immediately available for comment but a spokeswoman said Frist wanted to look at the Supreme Court case ``and look at the FDA portion again and consider legislation.''
She gave no timetable, but backing from a Republican with Frist's stature on health care -- he is a heart and lung transplant surgeon -- would give any FDA bill a boost.
A few conservative Republicans said they would not favor FDA legislation, or would only consider fairly narrowly tailored legislation giving the agency limited authority.
Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions said if Congress wants to take action on smoking, it should do so directly, not through federal regulators."
``It would be a cop-out and a diminishment of democratic responsibilities to punt this to an agency to decide,'' Sessions said.
Oklahoma Republican Don Nickles, the influential assistant Senate Republican leader, said FDA requirements regarding checking identification of anyone who looks under age 27 is ``ridiculous.'' But Nickles, no fan of government regulation, said he would consider granting the FDA some limited powers on tobacco, but would not want a federal agency acting as ``convenience store police'' or collecting fees and penalties that were tantamount to a tax hike.