Tobacco ruling forces end to US retailer checks
WASHINGTON, March 21 (Reuters) - The Supreme Court decision that federal health officials have no power to regulate tobacco is forcing the end to a three-year-old program designed to make it harder for minors to buy cigarettes, a U.S. official said on Tue
The nation's highest court ruled 5-4 that the Food and Drug Administration does not have the authority to regulate tobacco products as drugs, dealing a major setback to the Clinton administration's efforts to stop children from smoking.
In the wake of the ruling, federal health officials were planning to send letters to states saying they were terminating a program of random checks on whether retailers were selling cigarettes to minors, according to a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
``They are going to have to discontinue'' the program, the HHS spokesman said.
The FDA's checks on retailers were part of a sweeping initiative President Clinton announced in 1996 when the FDA asserted authority to regulate tobacco as a drug. Parts of that effort were carried out even while the tobacco industry challenged their legality in court.
Under the program, the FDA made random checks of whether retailers were asking for photo identification for people under age 27 or selling tobacco products to anyone under 18, the legal age for buying cigarettes or smokeless tobacco. The agency warned or fined violators and recently started posting their names on the FDA Web site.
States still prohibit tobacco sales to minors, but those laws traditionally were not strictly enforced.
Several Democratic senators, who called on Congress to enact legislation giving the FDA power over tobacco, said the Supreme Court decision would have an immediate impact on minors' ability to smoke by ending the retailer checks.
``With this decision, the Supreme Court has now made it much easier for kids to buy tobacco and tobacco products,'' Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said at a news conference.
Harkin urged businesses to commit to continuing the program voluntarily.
``I ask the convenience stores, I ask our drugstores, I ask our gas stations, other places where kids can buy cigarettes, to not go back to the old ways,'' Harkin said.
Most of Clinton's plans were never put into effect. The agency held off on advertising and marketing curbs until courts decided whether the FDA had the power to do regulate tobacco.
The industry agreed to some restrictions, however, in a massive agreement reached with states in 1998 to settle lawsuits seeking to recover public costs of treating sick smokers.