WASHINGTON - The Senate yesterday resoundingly approved a double-barreled compromise empowering the federal government to regulate the sale and marketing of tobacco products to children and initiating a $12 billion buyout of tobacco farmers, financed by cigarette makers.
The 78-15 vote was a major victory for children's health advocates, led by Sens. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio) and Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.), who have been fighting for years to allow the FDA to regulate tobacco as a way of limiting children's exposure to cigarette and other tobacco products.
Under the compromise, the FDA would have the authority to severely restrict tobacco product advertising to children, limit vending-machine sales of cigarettes, and beef up enforcement of laws prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to children under 18.
Although the legislation forbids the FDA from banning tobacco, it allows the agency to require tobacco companies to list the ingredients in their products, to place stiffer warnings on tobacco products, and to order the removal of hazardous ingredients.
"We have a right as a society to control how this dangerous product is marketed to children," said Senator DeWine.
"Every product that we consume, except tobacco, we know what's in it. We are finally saying that we are not going to let tobacco manufacturers have free reign over their markets and consumers anymore. This bill will help slow the spread of tobacco addiction [and] save lives."
Lawmakers from tobacco-growing states, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) grudgingly supported the compromise, saying that accepting FDA regulation of tobacco products was the only way they could win much-needed relief for financially strapped tobacco growers.
The $12 billion, 10-year Senate buyout provision would assess a user fee on tobacco companies to collect money needed to pay farmers to get out of the tobacco quota program. The program, which limits tobacco production and boosts prices, dates from the days of the New Deal. Tobacco lawmakers say it has helped fuel rising costs and reduced demand for American-grown tobacco.
"We have a marriage of convenience here," Senator McConnell said. "I candidly will say that I am not a great fan of FDA regulation [of tobacco]. But these two issues needed to be married if we were to get either one of them out of the Senate and on the way down the legislative road toward some accomplishment."
Opponents of the compromise complained that it had not gone through the normal legislative process and argued that it was the wrong way to try to address the problem.
"Only in the United States Senate would we take one bad bill and put it together with another bad bill, and now it's going to pass," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.).
The nation's largest cigarette manufacturer, Philip Morris USA, embraced the compromise. Other tobacco companies, including R.J. Reynolds, opposed the compromise, contending that it is ill-conceived.
The compromise was attached to a larger corporate tax overhaul bill, which was then passed on a voice vote by the Senate. The House-passed version of that tax bill, however, includes a $10 billion, five-year tobacco quota buyout, financed by taxpayers, and does not address the issue of FDA regulation.
The differences between the two versions of the bill now will be resolved by a House-Senate conference committee. The job of the conference committee was complicated when the House voted earlier this week to attach an amendment to different legislation that would forbid the federal government from carrying out a taxpayer-financed tobacco buyout.
Supporters of the DeWine-Kennedy-McConnell provision, meanwhile, worry that Congress' packed schedule, shortened by the political conventions and campaigning, could make it difficult to get a final vote on compromise tax legislation before lawmakers adjourn for the year in October.
"We're closer than we've ever been before," Mr. McConnell said. "But the job's not done yet."
President Bush, who had earlier caused a furor in tobacco country when he said that the quota program did not need to be changed, has since indicated a change of heart. But the White House remains mum on the issue of FDA regulation of tobacco.
"We are open to a tobacco buyout that is fair for farmers and fair for taxpayers. We will continue to work with Congress on this issue," said White House spokesman Jim Morrell.
Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.), the presumed Democratic presidential candidate, supports the compromise legislation combining a buyout with FDA regulation of tobacco.
"Today's vote is a good step forward in giving tobacco farmers and their families relief from the government's outdated tobacco quota system," said Anthony Coley, a spokesman for the Kerry-Edwards campaign.
"President Bush and this administration must now show real leadership and help build a consensus that ensures its passage."
During the Senate debate, Mr. Kennedy noted that, each day, 5,000 youngsters under age 18 smoke their first cigarette. FDA regulation of tobacco could help decrease the number of children who begin smoking by limiting their exposure to advertisements that make it look like the ticket to a glamorous life, Mr. Kennedy added.
Although tobacco companies vehemently deny that they target advertising to children, Mr. Kennedy contended that was untrue.
"Tobacco companies spend $9 billion a year to promote tobacco," Mr. Kennedy said. "Much of that is spent to convince children to start smoking. The industry know that 90 percent of those who start smoking as children are addicted by the time they reach adulthood."
But Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.), said FDA regulation of tobacco is a bad idea that "could put small tobacco companies out of business and make the big companies bigger.
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