Tobacco Issue Back in Congress
WASHINGTON (AP) - Anti-smoking members of Congress promised to move quickly and aggressively to revive legislation after the Supreme Court ruled that current law does not allow the government to regulate tobacco.
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who led the unsuccessful charge for tobacco legislation two years ago, also cautioned that, as in the past, overcoming resistance from the tobacco industry will not be easy.
McCain, just returned to the Senate after his unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination, said he would like to see tobacco regulated but worried that tobacco companies, major sources of political contributions, ``are too powerful'' for that to happen.
Until Congress enacts legislation to limit campaign spending, he said Tuesday, ``I'm not optimistic we're going to get that done.''
Nonetheless, Rep. Henry Waxman, a leading proponent of anti-smoking legislation, said he was reintroducing a measure that would give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco as a drug.
``It is now our responsibility,'' Waxman, D-Calif., said.
In the Senate, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said he was introducing legislation giving the secretary of health and human services the authority to regulate the manufacture and distribution of tobacco products. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said the Senate ``should be able to act expeditiously to grant the FDA the full authority it needs.''
President Clinton also weighed in from India, urging Congress to move swiftly. ``If we are to protect our children from the harms of tobacco, Congress must now enact the provisions of the FDA rule.''
The Supreme Court, in its 5-4 decision Tuesday, said the FDA was exercising an authority not granted by Congress when it reversed a decades-old policy in 1996 and sought to crack down on cigarette sales to minors.
Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, an anti-smoking crusader, today rejected a key point that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor made in writing the court's decision. She noted the FDA has concluded that smoking is dangerous and said that if the agency had power over cigarettes, the law ``would require the FDA to remove them from the market entirely.''
``That is absolutely not true,'' Koop said on ABC's ``Good Morning America.'' ``The Public Health Service knows that if we were to take away tobacco from 49 million addicts right now, we would have a medical problem of unbelievable proportions.
``I wish the Supreme Court knew a little more about addiction and the federal government's Public Health Service,'' Koop said.
Any effort to regulate the tobacco industry faces strong obstacles in Congress, as witnessed two years ago when the Senate defeated an ambitious plan championed by McCain that would have raised $516 billion over 25 years from increased prices for cigarettes, bolstered anti-smoking campaigns and given the FDA authority to regulate nicotine.
The McCain bill had majority support but fell three short of getting the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Many Republicans said they couldn't accept it because the bill, by increasing the price of a pack of cigarettes, violated their promise not to impose any new taxes.
It may be even more difficult to pass a tobacco bill in this presidential election year, although both major party candidates favor congressional action to further restrict tobacco.
A statement from the campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, said Bush believes ``decisions about tobacco regulation should be made by Congress and state legislatures'' and ``that Congress should pass tough laws to keep tobacco out of the hands of kids similar to strict anti-teen smoking laws he advocated and signed in Texas.''
His presumed Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore (news - web sites), said, ``It is time for the Republican Congress and George Bush to show their independence from 'big tobacco' and do the right thing by passing legislation that has had bipartisan support.''
The initial reactions on Capitol Hill to the Supreme Court ruling indicated that new anti-tobacco legislation would be far more modest, focusing on giving the FDA regulatory power.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a physician who co-sponsored the 1998 bill with McCain, would consider introducing legislation based on the FDA portion of the larger bill, said his spokeswoman, Margaret Camp.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who has final say about what gets to the Senate floor, said he was ``not one of those'' who believes the FDA should have control over tobacco.
``I don't think they do a very good job with what they're doing now without more requirements being dumped on them,'' Lott said.