Waxman compares Republican defenders of food marketers to tobacco champions

The top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday compared Republican defenders of unbridled food marketing to children to past champions of the tobacco industry.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) drew parallels between Wednesday's hearing on proposed voluntary marketing restrictions and a 2003 hearing during which some Republicans promoted the safety of smokeless tobacco.

"I just find this an amazing hearing," Waxman said. "The only thing I can analogize it to is after all the tobacco issues we discussed for many years, Republicans took charge and we never heard anything more about tobacco. Then, suddenly we had a hearing about tobacco. And the hearing was about how smokeless tobacco should be encouraged as a way for smokers to give up smoking. It was geared to promoting an industry that no doubt supported financially many of the members. I wonder if this hearing is about the same subject."

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The 2003 hearing was called by then-chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) to examine claims that smokeless tobacco — mainly chewing tobacco and snuff — were a safe alternative to smoking.

"There is an increasing amount of research suggesting that some tobacco products are less harmful than others," Tauzin said at the time. "For those smokers who can't seem to quit smoking, switching to a less hazardous product could save lives."

The government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since declared that smokeless tobacco is "not a safe substitute for smoking cigarettes."

Wednesday's hearing aimed to raise concerns with proposed guidelines from four federal agencies that urge the food industry to voluntary restrict the marketing of certain foods to children as a way to limit childhood obesity. 

Congress told the agencies — the Agriculture Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission — to conduct a study and recommend standards for marketing food to children. 

Some Republicans and industry officials accuse the agencies of going too far and "unilaterally" proposing voluntary guidelines that are too strict and would fail to curb childhood obesity.

"To many of us and our constituents," Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in his opening remarks, "this appears to be a first step toward Uncle Sam planning our family meals."

Democrats said the opposite was true.

The proposed guidelines, said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), aim to "support, not supplant, moms and dads."

Critics also questioned the voluntary nature of the guidelines.

"These broad marketing restrictions are 'voluntary'," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), "but it's clear they will inevitably form the basis for [non-governmental organization] attacks, shareholder actions and private litigation." 

David Vladeck, the director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at FTC, called those concerns a "myth."

Some companies comply with other voluntary guidelines, some don't, he said, and "it's never been a trigger for litigation."

This post was updated at 4:45 p.m. with a quote from Rep. Henry Waxman