Following years of debate over whether tobacco products should be regulated, the US House of Representatives has passed a landmark bill with broad bipartisan support of 326 to 102 that would arm the Food and Drug Administration with the power to regulate tobacco products and their sales in the US, for the first time in history.
The bill comes 20 years after former surgeon general C. Everett Koop stated that nicotine was as addictive as heroin.
So far the major tobacco companies have used their money power to successfully stonewall any legislation. But over the years, their influence has receded even as anti-smoking advocacy groups, backed by research and medical opinion, have gained more clout.
Though the bill has to pass through the Senate where it is known to to enjoy strong support, the current Bush White House has promised to veto it from becoming law. A similar bill was passed by the Senate in 2004, but fell to opposition in the House of Representatives.
However, to get the bill passed, the government had to negotiate with the largest cigeratte maker in the US, Philip Morris USA, the maker of the popular Marlboro brand, for support; Philip Morris is the only major tobacco company to approve of this bill.
Anti-tobacco lobbies believe that the government gave in to too many of the cigeratee maker's demands --- the bill defangs the FDA from being able to order the elimination of nicotine from tobacco products or place an outright ban on their sales.
The bill, however, empowers FDA to make it mandatory for tobacco companies to furnish details about the type and quantities of ingredients in their products like ammonia and acetaldehyde, which researchers believe work with nicotine to increase the addictiveness of cigarettes. This would force tobacco companies to open their internal research on the biological effects of these additives to FDA scrutiny.
IT also empowers the agency to force the reduction of nicotine to nonaddictive levels and compel masnufacturers to reduce or eliminate other harmful ingredients, if it was of the opinion that this was in the interest of public health.
The bill seeks a ban on flavoured cigarettes, popular with new and young smokers, but exempts menthol from the ban, inviting criticism from antismoking advocates who say mentholated cigarettes are frequently smoked by black smokers.
If the bill is passed in to a law, cigarette companies would be forced to give up advertising their products as ''light'' or ''ultralight'' to convey the impresesion of containing less harmful ingredients. Perhaps in anticipation, some tobaco companies have been using colour-coded packaging to denote different blends.
The bill also seeks to ban cigarettes from being advertised outdoors or in publications seen by children. It also stipulates that all advertisements would have to be in black and white, to reduce their visual appeal.
Tobacco companies were known to manipulate the nicotine content of cigarettes to increase their addictiveness, provoking Dr David A Kessler, who was the FDA commissioner in 1995, to bring tobacco under FDA's jurisdiction, although this had also been attempted way back in 1980s.
In 1996 when the Clinton administration sought to bring in this legislation, the US Supreme Court at that time ruled that the government was overreaching its authority. Though it has taken 12 years to get a legislation that addressed the court's objections, it has led to 400,000 deaths in the US, attributed to the ill effects of tobacco products during this time.