EDITORIAL, The Senate has a not-to-be-missed opportunity in the next few weeks to pass legislation giving the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco products.
It should move quickly — during the brief period of calm before the senators must grapple with health care reform and other difficult issues.
A bill to grant the F.D.A. the needed authority was approved by the House last year. It stalled in the Senate in the face of Republican threats to filibuster, a veto threat from President George W. Bush, and a crowded legislative schedule before the November elections. The prospects may be better this year — provided the Senate jumps on the issue early.
The House has already passed a strong bill by a 298-to-112 margin. President Barack Obama supported it. The American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and hundreds of other respected organizations backed it. So did Philip Morris, the industry giant, which is apparently confident that it could dominate any regulated marketplace.
The bill would empower the F.D.A. to regulate the content of tobacco products and their marketing. The agency could order a reduction in nicotine levels and the elimination or reduction of other harmful ingredients. It could restrict marketing and sales to young people to the extent allowed by the First Amendment, crack down on misleading health claims and require larger, more effective health warnings on packages and advertisements.
No senator should be fooled by a weak substitute bill offered by two tobacco-state senators, Richard Burr, a Republican, and Kay Hagan, a Democrat, both from North Carolina. Their bill would create a new regulatory agency within the Department of Health and Human Services to handle tobacco products on the superficially plausible rationale that the F.D.A. is already overburdened with its current regulation of drugs, medical devices and food safety.
Such a fledgling agency would almost certainly be much less effective than the F.D.A., especially since the senators don’t propose to grant it the broad powers and ample resources provided by the House-passed bill.
As the Senate prepares for a bruising battle on health care reform, there would be no more fitting prelude than to authorize F.D.A. regulation of tobacco products that kill 400,000 Americans each year and impose huge costs on the health care system, corporations and the national economy.