Tobacco Industry Wins in Supreme Court
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A closely divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the Food and Drug Administration lacks the power to regulate tobacco products, handing President Clinton a stinging setback in the effort to curb youth smoking.
The nation's highest court by a 5-4 vote ruled that the FDA, a federal government agency, overstepped its authority in 1996 when it issued unprecedented, sweeping regulations involving cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.
The decision was a major victory for the tobacco industry, which has been hit with a number of civil lawsuits seeking huge damages for smoking-related illnesses.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in the court's majority opinion that the case involved one of the most troubling public health problems facing the nation -- thousands of premature deaths that occur each year from tobacco use.
``In this case, we believe that Congress has clearly precluded the FDA from asserting jurisdiction to regulate tobacco products,'' she concluded in the 39-page opinion.
The FDA regulations, strongly endorsed by Clinton, sought to restrict the sale of tobacco products to minors and to limit advertising and marketing by tobacco companies.
The regulations were aimed at the approximately 1 million children and adolescents who begin to smoke every year. One of every three young people who become regular smokers will die prematurely from a tobacco-related disease, the FDA said.
O'Connor said the FDA has ``amply demonstrated'' that tobacco use, especially among children and adolescents, posed perhaps the single most significant threat to public health in the United States.
``No matter how important, conspicuous and controversial the issue and regardless of how likely the public is to hold the executive branch politically accountable, an administrative agency's power to regulate in the public interest must always be grounded in a valid grant of authority from Congress,'' she wrote.
O'Connor was joined by cigarette smokers Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, former cigar smoker Clarence Thomas and nonsmoker Anthony Kennedy. They represent the court's most conservative members.
Dissenting were justices Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, all nonsmokers and the court's most liberal members.
Taking the unusual step of reading his dissent from the bench, Breyer said the FDA has the power to regulate products ''intended to affect the structure and any function of the body,'' and that tobacco should fall under this language.
``The upshot is that the court today holds that a regulatory statute aimed at unsafe drugs and devices does not authorize regulation of a drug (nicotine) and a device (a cigarette) that the court itself finds unsafe,'' Breyer said.
A federal judge in North Carolina ruled in 1997 that the FDA could regulate nicotine as a drug and tobacco products as drug-delivery devices, but had no authority to restrict tobacco advertising.
A U.S. appeals court in Richmond, Virginia ruled in 1998 that the FDA lacked explicit authority from Congress to expand its reach to tobacco products. That decision was upheld by the Supreme Court.
The ruling will shift the battle over federal tobacco regulation to the Republican-controlled Congress, which could give the FDA the power to regulate cigarettes.