Graphic smoker warnings eyed
Proposal to grant FDA regulation opens door for images on packs
WASHINGTON - U.S. smokers could face health warnings on cigarette packs featuring color images of cancerous lungs, diseased gums or a stroke-damaged brain if Congress follows the Senate's recent lead.
In Canada, where such graphic images were introduced on cigarette packs in 2000, an academic study found them an effective way to get smokers to quit or cut back. Some U.S. lawmakers are keenly interested.
"Cross the border into Canada and look at a package of cigarettes," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., urged colleagues July 15. The Senate was debating an amendment for broad Food and Drug Administration authority over tobacco manufacturing and sales.
Instead of old and "worthless" warnings on U.S. packs, Canada has "clear warnings that might give somebody some pause. . . . Our FDA ought to have that same authority," Durbin said in advocating a vote for the measure.
The Senate went on to endorse sweeping new federal regulations to combat youth smoking, plus a $12 billion buyout for tobacco farmers, as part of a corporate-tax rewrite.
The bill would open the door to graphic images on health warnings in the future. For now, it would require more explicit black-and-white written warnings. It would move them from the side of the pack and require that they take up 30 percent of the front and rear package panels.
Here are some other changes the bill proposes:
Goodbye, Marlboro Team Penske in the Indy Racing League. Clinton-era FDA rules adopted in the bill include a ban on such brand-name sponsorships.
Farewell, slick and colorful cigarette ads in magazines oriented to youth readers. Such ads would be restricted to black-and-white text messages. The Marlboro Man could live for another day, but not in these ads.
Goodbye to cigarette vending machines or self-service cigarette displays except in adult places such as bars.
Welcome to required checks of government-issued photo ID for cigarette buyers appearing to be under 27.
The FDA would be empowered to order reduction of tar, nicotine and other components and could bar use of such terms as "low-tar" and "light" without its approval.
Would smokers pay more? Maybe.
An official with Altria Group, parent company of Richmond-based cigarette maker Philip Morris USA, said only that the company's cost of making a pack would rise marginally as a result of the bill.
"Today we are taking a step toward limiting the tobacco advertisements directed at our children and finally giving the FDA the authority to address the problem of youth smoking," Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, said July 15. He sponsored the amendment with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Despite the Senate's overwhelming 78-15 vote for the corporate-tax rewrite package, aimed at ending European trade sanctions, the legislation is far from a done deal in the remaining weeks of this election-year Congress.
The House of Representatives version of the tax rewrite contains a $9.6 billion buyout but no FDA authority over tobacco products, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas has strenuously opposed FDA regulation.
And some tobacco-state senators, including Republican George Allen of Virginia, who voted "aye" to gain a farmer buyout, also pledged efforts to weaken or delete the FDA provisions in the next stage, a House-Senate conference.
If some of the bill's proposals to battle youth smoking seem familiar, it's because they're not really new.
Key rules on marketing and advertising first were proposed in 1996 by the Clinton administration and FDA Commissioner David Kessler, who got the tobacco industry and tobacco states all fired up.
In Virginia, tobacco once was the cash crop for the Colonies. In 1996, Attorney General Jim Gilmore joined those filing court papers to block FDA regulation. He contended it was unlawful and would harm tobacco farmers and workers.
Finally in March 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the FDA had overreached its authority with its plan to regulate tobacco products as "drug delivery devices" supplying nicotine. The high court handed the issue back to Congress.
When Congress revisited the topic, it dealt with a changed political landscape: Some curbs on tobacco advertising and marketing had come about through settlements between tobacco companies and states, and Philip Morris, the leading cigarette-maker, had reversed its hard-nosed position and backed FDA regulation.
Philip Morris is alone among the major companies. Its rivals have launched advertising critical of the Senate bill, saying it would guarantee Philip Morris a monopoly. Trade groups for convenience stores and for advertisers also have staunchly opposed the FDA provisions.
Tobacco farmers once decried possible FDA intrusion on the farm. But many of them have changed course to accept FDA authority over tobacco in exchange for a multibillion-dollar buyout.
Some Southern senators continued to raise alarms last month against such federal intrusion. But Kennedy pointed to a bill section keeping FDA employees off the farm "without the written consent" of the tobacco grower.
The bill would ban flavored cigarettes, though not menthol brands. It would require disclosure of the contents of tobacco products. It would reserve to Congress a decision whether to ban all cigarettes or eliminate nicotine in a tobacco product.
This bill is so detailed that it even applies federal regulation to the ordinary paper matchbooks given out with cigarettes.
The matchbooks would be considered "adult . . . publications" and would be allowed to carry regular cigarette advertising. One company seeking the provision was D.D. Bean & Sons Co., a New Hampshire firm that is the largest maker of paper matchbooks in North America.
The company sought help from New Hampshire lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, chairman of the Senate Health and Education Committee. Gregg's office was in agreement last year with the home-state company's concerns, a Washington lawyer for D.D. Bean said, and went to work on the matter.
A spokesman for Gregg did not return calls for comment last week.
Contact Peter Hardin at (202) 662-7669 or firstname.lastname@example.org