Tobacco bill clears Senate by wide margin

The Senate on Thursday easily passed a sweeping bill that gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) new powers to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products, brushing aside several days of strong opposition from North Carolina’s two senators.

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The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act passed through the chamber on a 79-19 vote, after a successful 298-112 House vote on April 2. The bill empowers the FDA to regulate tobacco products.

Fifty-six Democrats joined 23 Republicans to support the bill, while 16 of the 17 opposition votes were cast by Republicans. North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan was the only Democrat to oppose it.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the bill “will save lives,” calling it “a victory for common sense, public health and our nation’s future.”

It is unclear if a House-Senate conference will be necessary; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said this week she believes the House may simply re-vote on the Senate version of the bill, which included minor differences from the House bill.

The bill was primarily pushed by Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). FDA officials would gain new power to regulate the ingredients, marketing and disclosure requirements of cigarettes, for example, including the power to ban advertising that seeks to downplay the drug's effect, such as that which promotes cigarettes as "low-tar" or "mild."

The bill also circumvents a March 2000 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Clinton administration attempt to regulate tobacco. On a 5-4 vote, justices at the time said the FDA was "overreaching" in attempting to regulate tobacco without congressional approval.

Hagan and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) were pushing a substitute bill that would put the controversial drug under the control of a newly created entity of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services instead of the FDA.

The substitute bill by Burr and Hagan was attacked by critics who say taking control outside the FDA would short-circuit attempts at worthwhile regulation, while Burr and Hagan say HHS is better equipped to regulate the drug.