Monday, June 8, 2009

Senate vote a sea change for tobacco

A landmark tobacco regulation bill advanced in the Senate on Monday amid growing pressure for the House to quickly accept the final product and lock up a long-sought victory for anti-smoking forces — and for President Barack Obama.

Seven Republicans joined 52 Democrats on the 61-30 roll call to cut off debate on the measure, which authorizes the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the industry with a mandate to reduce teenage smoking by restricting advertising aimed at young audiences.

To win over hesitant Republicans on the cloture vote, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pledged that he would work to ensure that tobacco state lawmakers still have a chance this week to present their alternative regulatory scheme — which is now technically out of order. The narrowness of Reid’s margin — a supermajority of 60 was required — reflects the dicey politics of the Senate. But going forward, proponents of the bill are in the driver’s seat, and passage is all but assured in the next few days.

Amid the greater focus on Obama’s larger health care reform agenda, the FDA’s new authority can get lost in the shuffle. But it reflects a sea change in tobacco politics over the past decade and is the latest in a series of incremental steps by the new White House and Democratic Congress this year that would, in another time, receive more attention.

After being stymied repeatedly by former President George W. Bush, Democrats wasted no time in January before moving through legislation to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover an additional 4.1 million children, chiefly from working-class families. And Obama’s economic recovery program in February devoted tens of billions to health care investments, from Medicaid and community health centers to new information technology and research into the comparative effectiveness of different medical treatments.

Tobacco has paid heavily for this shift, beginning with a near 62 cents-per-pack increase in federal cigarette taxes to pay for the SCHIP expansion. And to help pay for the new FDA regulatory role, the industry will be subject to user fees beginning at $235 million next year and tripling to $712 million over the next decade.

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The Senate vote captured the change in old alliances that once made tobacco a major power broker in Congress, even beyond its own domain. Sugar- and cotton-state Democrats from the South voted for cloture, for example, and among the Republicans supporting Reid’s motion was no less than Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who chairs the Republicans’ Senate campaign committee.

“It’s a less-than-perfect solution to a bad problem,” Cornyn told POLITICO. “Tobacco kills 400,000 people a year in this country. We’ve tried litigation, and the only thing that happened is a bunch of lawyers got rich. Ordinarily, I would not be an advocate for more government regulation. But if this is going to be a legal product, sold in America, I think this is a reasonable step.”