Philip Morris now seeking FDA control, Cigarette-maker pushing Congress to act this year
WASHINGTON -- Giant cigarette-maker Philip Morris is actively working for legislation in Congress this year that would provide federal regulation of tobacco -- on terms acceptable to the company.
The leading manufacturer of cigarettes has been talking to lawmakers from both parties "about the possibility of getting something through this year if there's an opportunity to do so," Peggy Roberts, a Philip Morris spokeswoman, said yesterday. "We don't want to wait."
Roberts explained, "We think it's important to get this regulation in place. The sooner it's in place, the better for our business, the public, for everybody involved."
The active role of Philip Morris, which announced earlier it was willing to accept reasonable Food and Drug Administration regulation, emerged amid maneuvering over a proposal by Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, for FDA authority over tobacco.
Key lawmakers had signaled that FDA legislation might be offered yesterday in a House health subcommittee meeting as an amendment to children's health legislation. Ganske belongs to the panel, part of the House Commerce Committee. Republican leaders postponed the meeting.
In a letter April 7 to Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. of Richmond, chairman of the Commerce Committee, Democratic Reps. John D. Dingell and Sherrod Brown said, "There is bipartisan support in the [health] subcommittee . . . now" for tackling the issue of FDA authority.
Dingell, of Michigan, is senior Democrat on the full committee, and Brown, of Ohio, is senior Democrat on its health panel. Their letter discussed possible amendments on both tobacco and managed care.
Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla. and chairman of the health panel, said yesterday in announcing the postponement that the children's health legislation "sadly . . . fell victim to partisan politics."
Noting the Dingell and Brown letter, Bilirakis said,
"They threw a grenade into this [meeting] with these amendments. When it exploded, destroying the fragile coalition we had assembled, they blamed the grenade for exploding." Republicans also were concerned about jeopardizing a "patients' bill of rights" legislation under negotiation between the Senate and House.
A Dingell spokesman said a commitment by GOP leaders for scheduling action in the subcommittee and full Commerce Committee "would have obviated the need for any amendment," but no timetable was given. "Why not let democracy work, and let the members vote their will?" the aide asked.
Ganske, meanwhile, said he wouldn't have offered his bill as an amendment yesterday if he got a timetable for action on it. He said he already had 23 Republican and 19 Democrats signed on to his bill.
Ganske, a physician, disclosed a Philip Morris letter to him disagreeing with key provisions of his bill.
The company said it opposed his bill, yet "we remain hopeful that proposals will emerge that appropriately regulate the tobacco industry, while at the same time recognizing that smoking is a choice that adults can legitimately make."
Bliley's hometown of Richmond has a major Philip Morris manufacturing plant. Bliley's spokesman said yesterday the chairman did not think "this [meeting] was . . . the time or the place to discuss the controversial issue of tobacco."
In 1998, Bliley negotiated an outline of a tobacco-control bill with Democrat Henry A. Waxman of California, but it was rejected by Speaker Newt Gingrich and his lieutenants.
Bliley was described yesterday by a tobacco industry source as unhappy with Philip Morris. Bliley's spokesman had no comment.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the FDA's assertion of authority over tobacco products, sending the hot issue back to Congress.
In an election year, few have given good odds to passage of controversial tobacco-control legislation in the Republican-controlled Congress. As for whether Philip Morris is seeking action this year because Republicans still are in control, company spokeswoman Roberts said, "I don't think so."
Anti-smoking groups have regarded with caution the willingness of some tobacco industry leaders to discuss additional federal regulation.