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Tobacco Regulation in Front of Congress Again

WASHINGTON -- The long push to grant federal health authorities power to regulate tobacco has re-emerged as a top issue in Congress this week as lawmakers pushed to include it in a massive corporate tax bill they hope to wrap up within the next week, according to Reuters.

Anti-tobacco lawmakers want to grant the Food and Drug Administration power to regulate tobacco, including adding bolder health warnings on cigarette packs, regulating advertising, more aggressively combating underage sales and regulating ingredients to make cigarettes less harmful. It could not ban cigarettes or completely eliminate nicotine.

To make the proposal more politically palatable, they twinned the FDA plan with a $12 billion industry-financed buyout to U.S. tobacco farmers struggling with an antiquated price support system. Both proposals were added to a corporate tax bill being finalized by House and Senate negotiators.

Several lawmakers and aides said tobacco remained among the most vexing aspects of the tax talks. Democratic senators and a solid bloc of Republican allies remain determined to link the farm aid and the FDA, and some have hinted they will block the tax bill if that fails.

In the House, several lawmakers and public health advocates said the FDA language had growing support, despite opposition from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and some other key Republican conservatives.

DeLay supports a buyout but told reporters this week he opposed the FDA as a "back-door regulatory process" aimed at banning tobacco. He did not threaten to block a tax deal that included FDA language.

The National Association of Convenience Stores has voiced its opposition to the measure as it stands, pointing out that it holds retailers and wholesalers liable for things beyond their control, provides no real affirmative defense for responsible businesses, does not place an equal burden on competitors to brick-and-mortar retailers and lacks provisions that would deter underage consumption, such as penalties on clerks and minors.

The renewed interest in Congress comes as major cigarette companies are in the opening weeks of a $280 billion racketeering trial. The government charges Big Tobacco tried to confuse the public about health risks in a 50-year conspiracy.

During the trial on Wednesday, R.J. Reynolds lawyer Robert McDermott sparred with a medical expert over whether the public was misled on the dangers of secondhand smoke.

Pulmonary specialist Jonathan Samet told U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler that researchers concluded beginning in the 1980s that exposure to secondhand smoke increased the risk of lung cancer in non-smokers.

Until the mid-1990s, cigarette makers made the case publicly that the connection between secondhand smoke and health hazards had not been proven. All of them now either acknowledge or defer to the warnings of public health officials, who have concluded that secondhand smoke is linked to increased cancer and heart disease risk.

During cross-examination, McDermott showed the judge a number of earlier studies that had turned up no significant connection between secondhand smoke and cancer, including five studies from 1986 alone. He quoted from a 1979 report from the Surgeon General that said healthy non-smokers had "little or no physiological response" to secondhand smoke and also cited research papers and reports that concluded more precise methods of measuring secondhand smoke exposure were needed, and that other factors, such as diet, should be studied further.

The government suit, launched in 1999, targets Philip Morris USA Inc. and its parent, Altria Group Inc.; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co.; British American Tobacco Ltd.; Lorillard; Liggett Group Inc.; Counsel for Tobacco Research-U.S.A.; and the Tobacco Institute.
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