Philip Morris’s Support Casts Shadow Over a Bill to Limit Tobacco

Philip Morris International Inc.

On Wednesday, the House is expected to pass a bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate the tobacco industry for the first time, including the power to block or approve new products.

The Senate, which passed a similar measure in 2004, is expected to take it up later this year, with support from President Obama.

Passage, if it comes, may be politically impossible without the negotiated support of Philip Morris, whose Marlboro brand helps make it the American tobacco industry’s biggest player.

The company’s central role, in fact, is a reason that some antismoking activists worry that the bill is a deal with the devil. Philip Morris’s support is also why other major tobacco companies — none of which back the legislation — see a cunning ploy by Marlboro’s maker to seal the company’s dominant position.

Senator Richard M. Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, home to Philip Morris’s rival R. J. Reynolds, has threatened a filibuster.

Competitors say that the F.D.A. is unlikely to approve many new tobacco products. That, they say, combined with the legislation’s broader restrictions on tobacco advertising and marketing, would lock in Philip Morris’s market dominance.

“It would make it harder to let consumers know there are options available to them,” said Maura Payne, a spokeswoman for R. J. Reynolds, a part of Reynolds American and the second-largest tobacco seller and maker of Camel cigarettes.

In addition, even as Philip Morris has spent years lobbying for the legislation, it has also poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a research center in Richmond, Va., to develop new tobacco products it hopes can pass federal muster — in particular, smokeless products that can be chewed or sucked or inhaled and do not involve burning tobacco. Few other tobacco companies have the resources to place such bets on the regulatory future.

Philip Morris’s motives notwithstanding, the legislation has broad support from nearly 1,000 advocacy groups, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which led the negotiations with the company, as well as the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society.

Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California who, along with Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, has long pushed for the legislation, says it will result in meaningful tobacco regulation. The law would curtail many of the harmful ingredients in cigarettes, he said, and ensure that tobacco is not advertised for children or sold to them.

“Philip Morris is supporting it for their own reasons,” said Mr. Waxman, a sponsor of the bill, called the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. “This is a good bill and a strong bill,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve made any concessions that we’d want to change.”

For its part Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, says it hopes that F.D.A. regulation would create a more predictable climate than state-by-state regulations and the product liability lawsuits that have challenged the tobacco industry.

On Tuesday, for example, the Supreme Court upheld a decade-old $79.5 million award to an Oregon smoker’s widow, nearly all in punitive damages, for what the Oregon Supreme Court had termed “extraordinarily reprehensible” conduct by Philip Morris in a “a massive, continuous, near-half-century scheme” of hiding the risks of products that killed many people.

While the tobacco bill expressly allows such lawsuits to continue, legal experts expect tobacco lawyers to argue that the new F.D.A. oversight confers federal authorization on their products.

“We recognize that we create a product that is harmful and causes serious disease,” said David M. Sylvia, an Altria spokesman. “For the betterment of even our business, it is best to have a set of regulations in place to provide stability and predictability.”

What the legislation actually means for the future of smoking in America is hard to predict. The rigor of tobacco regulation would depend on how aggressively the new powers were wielded by the F.D.A., which would need to set up a new Center for Tobacco Products, whose operations would be financed by up to $712 million a year in industry fees, assessed on the basis of companies’ market share.

So far, F.D.A. officials decline to discuss how this may work, because President Obama has nominated Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, a former New York City health commissioner, who still requires Senate confirmation.

The Waxman legislation is facing opposition from people who say its criteria for approving new “reduced harm” products — the bill’s term — will make it too difficult to approve and sell new tobacco products marketed as giving smokers safer alternatives to current cigarettes.

Competing legislation has been introduced in the House by Steve Buyer, Republican of Indiana, and Mike McIntyre, Democrat of North Carolina, and in the Senate by Mr. Burr of North Carolina and his Democratic colleague from that state, Kay Hagan.

Their bills would vest authority in the Department of Health and Human Services, rather than the F.D.A., and emphasize disclosure of ingredients, rather than banning ingredients or barring new products.

Mr. Waxman’s bill, empowering the F.D.A., prevailed in the House commerce committee March 4 on a vote of 39 to 13. It is thought to have more than enough votes to pass the House, although the Senate version could meet more resistance.

While leading nonprofit groups have lined up behind Mr. Waxman and Mr. Kennedy, the prime sponsor in the Senate, a smaller number of antismoking activists argue the hazards of trusting anything supported by Philip Morris.

“The way you beat the tobacco companies is the old-fashioned way: you beat them,” said Stanton A. Glantz, the founder and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, and a professor of cardiology there. “Going into partnership with them or cutting deals with them, there’s not single case anytime anywhere in the world where that’s worked.”

Mr. Glantz cited, for example, a provision in the Waxman bill that would allow tobacco industry representatives to sit on a new F.D.A. scientific advisory committee. Though the two would be nonvoting members, he said they could still exert influence.

Mr. Glantz argues that Congress should get tougher on the tobacco industry, now that it is more Democratic than it was last year and there is no longer the likelihood of a presidential veto.

Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, rejected Mr. Glantz’s charge that he had caved in to Philip Morris.

“It is easier for Stan Glantz to make accusations about a so-called deal,” Mr. Myers wrote in an e-mail message, “than to acknowledge that this is Mr. Waxman and Mr. Kennedy’s bill — because it is not credible to argue that the two strongest public health leaders in Congress who are fierce opponents of the tobacco industry are backing weak legislation.”

Mr. Sylvia, the Altria spokesman, said the company had been seeking F.D.A. regulation of tobacco since 2001, shortly after the Supreme Court rejected an F.D.A. effort to assert legal authority over nicotine as a drug. The court, in a 5-4 decision, said F.D.A. lacked Congressional authority.

“We support tough but reasonable federal regulation,” Mr. Sylvia said. “And specifically, we support the legislation that was introduced by Mr. Waxman and his committee.”

Source: Nytimes

1 comment to Philip Morris’s Support Casts Shadow Over a Bill to Limit Tobacco

  • I am excited to see the House has moved forward with FDA regulation of tobacco products today. I think it is all but certain to pass the Senate later this year. This is a positive first step in improving the health of Americans.

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