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Kennedy to seek tighter reins on tobacco

Democratic majority may give bill a big lift

WASHINGTON -- Senator Edward M. Kennedy this month will revive a long-stalled bill giving the federal government broad regulatory authority over the sale, distribution, and advertising of tobacco products.

While the Food and Drug Administration can regulate nicotine-replacement therapies, it has no oversight over cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, nor can it prevent sales of those tobacco products to youths.

"Smoking is the number one preventable cause of death, yet over 4,000 children have their first cigarette every day," said Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts . "We cannot in good conscience allow the Food and Drug Administration -- the federal agency most responsible for protecting the public health -- to remain powerless to deal with the enormous risks of tobacco."

The legislation is part of a handful of sweeping bills that Kennedy and others will seek to pass as Democrats begin running Congress. Republicans like Tom DeLay , the former House majority leader who helped to thwart tobacco regulation, are no longer in office.

"We are confident that the legislation will be considered and passed in this Congress," said Bill Corr , executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids . "The new Democratic leaders are all supporters. And the old Republican leaders were all opponents."

Among the more highly anticipated changes, the bill would permit the FDA to police "false or misleading" advertising and marketing aimed at children that glamorizes smoking.

"The tobacco industry has a long, dishonorable history of providing misleading information about the health consequences of smoking," Kennedy said. "The largest disinformation campaign in the history of the corporate world must end."

Under Kennedy's proposal, manufacturers also must provide the FDA with lists of ingredients and additives in their products, including nicotine . A recent Massachusetts Department of Public Health study found that levels of nicotine in cigarettes rose, on average, by 10 percent from 1998 to 2004 .

"Tobacco is a product that is known to kill, yet consumers of the product are not informed about the ingredients," said Steven Weiss , a spokesman for the lobbying arm of the American Cancer Society . "There is more regulation of a package of macaroni and cheese than there is of a box of cigarettes or another tobacco product."

Paradoxically, Congress could draw support for the legislation from within the tobacco industry.

Philip Morris USA , which recorded $1.3 billion in income in the third quarter , is among those "strongly" supporting FDA regulation of tobacco products, even if it means paying user fees to cover the expenses.

FDA regulation would bring "uniformity" that could "potentially reduce the harm caused by smoking," said Lisa Gonzalez , a spokeswoman for Altria Group Inc. , Philip Morris's parent company.

But tobacco growers are wary of the legislation.

Government buy outs have roiled the industry, pushing some growers out of business and forcing those who remain to forge closer ties to tobacco-products firms. Many now have contracts with companies that have opposed proposed government oversight, such as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and the US Smokeless Tobacco Co.

"We certainly understood the rationale for FDA regulation, as it relates to minors smoking," said Don Anderson , 56 , a Virginia grower whose father and grandfather also traded in tobacco.

Growers no longer have the option of selling crops at auction to all comers. Instead, they must sign contracts that link their financial future to that of the buyer.

Smaller manufacturers and smokeless tobacco producers have opposed regulation seen to favor Philip Morris, which sells cigarette brands such as Marlboro and enjoys a 50.4 percent share of the US retail market.

"What caused such divisiveness among the manufacturers before was the fact it was going to essentially lock advertising right where it was," said Anderson, giving a "competitive advantage" to brands that already have name recognition.

Regardless of whether FDA regulation is on the way, even tobacco growers with Philip Morris contracts are anxious to find crops to replace tobacco.

In sun-splashed plots near the North Carolina state line, Mexican laborers in the spring will sink tobacco plants started in greenhouses into the reddish soil. Late in the growing season, they'll snap off magenta flowers that rob the tobacco plant of nutrients, and will pull leaves, from bottom to top, as the tobacco matures.

Tobacco grower Walter Bass said he's not sure how many acres of his sprawling farm will be devoted to the plants in 2007. Already, tobacco prices have stagnated, while fuel, fertilizer, and labor costs rise, said Bass, 63, of Gladys , Va.

Bass's two sons , sensing that the once-booming tobacco cycle is lurching toward bust, last fall doubled the acreage they planted with turf.

Their sod fields are deep green, like newly minted money, without the overhead of greenhouses and drying-barns that tobacco requires.

"This is the best thing we've seen since tobacco," Bass said of the turf. "We were looking for something that was a high dollar-per-acre crop. And I think the sod is probably what it is."

Diedtra Henderson can be reached at dhenderson@globe.com.

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