WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration should be able to limit nicotine levels in cigarettes and require stronger warnings on packages and in advertising, health experts said Tuesday before lawmakers considering a bill to allow the agency to regulate tobacco products.
"FDA regulation will help us to combat the vicious marketing practices of a deceptive industry that has preyed upon our children, minorities and existing smokers who are desperately trying to kick their habit," Dr. Elmer Huerta, the incoming president of the American Cancer Society, told members of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Similar legislation passed the Senate in 2004 but was defeated in the House. Supporters think the Democratic majorities in both chambers will make for smooth passage.
But one committee member, Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.), argued that asking the FDA to set standards for tobacco products implied to consumers that they would be safe.
About 400,000 Americans die each year of smoking-related ailments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
"The FDA approves cures, not poisons," Enzi said. "Forcing the FDA to regulate tobacco but not letting them ban it would undermine the long history of the agency protecting and promoting the public health."
The legislation, introduced this month in the Senate and House with bipartisan support, would require tobacco companies to submit "reduced risk" products to the FDA for inspection and to disclose all ingredients. It would ban manufacturers from using terms such as "light" or "low tar," which the bill's supporters say have misled consumers by indicating that such products are less harmful.
In addition, the bill would give states the power to control tobacco advertising and promotion, which often target young people.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said children were vulnerable to advertisements despite a 1998 agreement between 46 states and five tobacco companies to end the marketing of tobacco products to children.
"The tobacco companies have easily overcome these restrictions by dramatically increasing marketing expenditures and constantly finding new and sophisticated ways to market their products, many of which impact kids," Myers said.
The tobacco industry doubled marketing budgets and spent more than $15 billion from 1998 to 2003, Myers said. Surveys by his organization said young people were almost twice as likely as adults to remember tobacco advertising.
Health experts said the use of hip-hop music, images of lavish lifestyles, candy-flavored tobacco, and displays at sporting events and similar venues have contributed to increased tobacco use among Latinos, African Americans and young women.
The FDA's efforts to regulate tobacco products began in 1996, when the agency announced plans to restrict tobacco advertising aimed at young people. Tobacco companies sued, contending that the FDA did not have the authority to do so.
In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled, 5 to 4, that the FDA needed the specific approval of Congress to regulate tobacco products. The legislation being considered would give the FDA that authority.
The country's largest cigarette manufacturer, Philip Morris USA, supports the legislation, saying in a statement submitted at Tuesday's hearing that the bill would give the industry "a new framework within which manufacturers can refocus their efforts in reducing the harm of their products."
"They figure that it's good business to be perceived that way. They are still trying to make a profit," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond and a former consultant to the FDA general counsel's office. "They have such a big market share, they don't mind being regulated. It may benefit them because the bill makes it harder for their competitors to gain a larger market share."