Lawmakers Urge Tougher Rules on Sale, Promotion of Tobacco Pending Health Reform Gives Tobacco Industry's Opponents Fresh Hope That Congress May Approve Legislation Altering How Companies Do Business

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SHOULD tobacco be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?

If Rep. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma and Rep. Dick Durbin (D) of Ohio have their way, it will be.

Yesterday, Representatives Synar and Durbin introduced legislation that, if passed, would have a wide impact on the tobacco companies.

"It is very clear as we move forward to a national health-care bill and a new commitment to preventative medicine, the largest drain on our system is tobacco," Synar said in an interview.

According to health-care groups, some 400,000 people per year die because of smoking- related illness. In addition, Synar notes that smoking costs the economy about $65 billion a year in lost productivity and medical payments.

Although Synar has failed to convince Congress to approve similar legislation in the past, he says this time "I have a president and first lady who are committed to health-care reform and realize we have to deal with tobacco."

The bill itself is wide-ranging. "This law fundamentally changes the way the tobacco industry is allowed to do business," says Scott Ballin, a vice president of the American Heart Association. For example, the proposal would require the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which administers the FDA, to promulgate rules governing the manufacture, distribution, sale, labeling, and advertising of the product.

Among the points of the proposed legislation:

* A federal minimum age of 18 years to purchase tobacco. Currently, 49 of 50 states have such a minimum age. However, antitobacco advocates point out the laws are not enforced since the average age when tobacco use begins is 13.

The new law would require the FDA to implement the regulations. For example, the FDA could ban vending machines if it determined underage youth routinely obtained cigarettes from such devices. All tobacco products would have to be marked, "Federal law prohibits sale to minors."

* The tobacco industry would be prohibited from giving out free samples or distributing discounted cigarettes as a result of coupons. …