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Let the FDA oversee tobacco

Congress is closer than ever to bringing tobacco under federal regulation.

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For more than a decade, antismoking advocates have pushed federal regulation of tobacco products. Oversight could, for instance, ban candy-flavored cigarettes aimed at youths. Now Congress can make this happen – if the effort isn't snuffed out by the White House and the industry.

In the 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration tried to crack down on cigarette sales to minors. It was thwarted by a Supreme Court ruling in 2000, which narrowly found that the FDA did not have the legal authority to regulate tobacco as a drug, even though tobacco products contain nicotine, are addictive, and constitute a significant public health threat. Only Congress could give the FDA the power it sought, the court ruled.

Since then, lawmakers have tried and failed to do this. Now they really can – if they don't get rolled by opponents (the tobacco industry has so far donated more than $2 million to Democratic and GOP federal campaigns this election cycle).

Last week, a House committee passed a bill that gives the FDA power over the sale, advertising, and distribution of tobacco products. A similar bill passed a Senate committee last year. More than half the members of Congress have cosponsored the bills. That's plenty of support to move the legislation to the floor of each chamber for a vote this year.

But the White House objects, along with lawmakers from tobacco country and Reynolds American, producer of the Camel brand and candy-flavored cigarettes.

They say the FDA is too overburdened with other duties to add tobacco. And the White House argues that regulation will give the false impression that tobacco smoking is safe – as if keeping tobacco outside oversight makes it safer.

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