WASHINGTON – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is busy enough without taking on the task of regulating tobacco,industry representatives told lawmakers Thursday.
A bill introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman,D-Calif.,would add tobacco to the FDA's list of responsibilities. But witnesses and legislators – many from tobacco-growing states – agreed at a subcommittee hearing that the agency has its hands full policing food,drugs and medical devices.
“I'm not convinced that FDA is the right agency to provide regulation,” said Rep. Mike Conaway,R-Texas,in his first hearing as the senior Republican member of the House subcommittee dealing with specialty crops,rural development and foreign agriculture.
“They're having problems with food safety and other areas. They have not done a spectacular job.”
The FDA is dealing with a salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 690 people since September and killed nine. The outbreak,linked to peanuts manufactured in two plants,led many politicians to propose restructuring the agency or increasing its food-safety powers.
The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act would allow the FDA to prevent the sale of tobacco to minors,reduce toxic constituents of tobacco products and regulate claims about reduced-risk cigarettes.
Two House committees approved the bill,which Waxman also introduced in the last Congress.
North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler – who couldn't attend and was represented by Graham Boyd of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina – and other witnesses said they instead support legislation by Rep. Steve Buyer,R-Ill. The bill would allow the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish a tobacco regulatory agency with a similar mission.
“Growers realize and understand that tobacco products will be regulated by the U.S. government in the future and that tobacco harm reduction will be pursued,” said Jessie Thomas Bunn,president of the Raleigh,N.C.-based U.S. Tobacco Cooperative. “This cooperative supports [Buyer's bill] because of the bill's rational pursuit of tobacco harm reduction.”
North Carolina Republican Richard Burr introduced similar legislation in the Senate with the support of Democratic colleague Kay Hagan.
Witnesses at Thursday's hearing said the domestic tobacco industry already is struggling because of cigarette tax increases,cheap tobacco grown in other countries,and the possibility that supply could outstrip demand and drive tobacco prices down.
Too much regulation could drive growers out of business,they said.
“You know the weather is going to be a variable that's always important; you know commodity prices are going to fluctuate; you know that the labor challenges are what they are,” Boyd said. “What is difficult is to anticipate the extensive amount of over-burdensome consequences that are occurring from the politics that surround tobacco.”
The industry is a huge part of the economy in much of the Southeast,said Blake Brown,an agricultural economist at North Carolina State University.
North Carolina produces almost half of the tobacco grown in the United States.