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House to vote on tobacco-regulation bill

House members are expected to approve a bill tonight that would authorize the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), would require the FDA to approve any new tobacco products before they're marketed, and would ban artificial and natural flavoring of cigarettes, other than menthol and tobacco. Critics say candy and fruit-flavored cigarettes were designed to appeal to kids, and the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between the tobacco industry and 46 state attorneys general barred companies from marketing them with an eye toward getting minors hooked on smokes despite laws that prohibit their sale to anyone under 18.

The legislation wouldn’t, however, allow the FDA to ban cigarettes, cigars, tobacco or smokeless tobacco products. It also wouldn’t allow the agency to require manufacturers to reduce their products' nicotine levels to zero.

The measure has 178 co-sponsors and President Obama, who's struggled with his own smoking habit, supports it, Reuters reports. The Senate passed a similar measure five years ago.

Critics have complained that the bill isn’t stringent enough, noting that menthol cigarettes are disproportionately popular among African Americans. They also say that Philip Morris, the only tobacco manufacturer backing the legislation, would secure its market dominance if the bill passes because the FDA probably wouldn’t approve any new tobacco products, according to the New York Times.

To execute its mandate under the measure, the FDA would have to set up a Center for Tobacco Products, funded, according to the Times, by up to $712 million a year from the tobacco industry. FDA observers are speculating that President Obama's nominee to head up the FDA, Margaret "Peggy" Hamburg, will oversee food and tobacco regulation and her deputy, Joshua Sharfstein, will manage drugs, biotech and medical devices. Hamburg is awaiting Senate confirmation.

Image by AH!Photography via Flickr

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