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By BARBARA BARRETT
Raleigh News & Observer
R.J. Reynolds’ new Camel No. 9s arrived this month in a black package trimmed in fuchsia, the slim cigarettes stamped with a tiny pink dromedary. The No. 9s are, according to the floral advertising, “light and luscious,” and full-size packs are handed out free to women at bars.
“They’re cute,” said Samantha Brown, a 20-year-old North Carolina State University junior. “And they’re lighter. They are. It’s like smoking air.”
But the marketing of the brand — along with other tobacco products — would change under a bill in the U.S. Senate’s health committee. Ads in young people’s magazines would be stark. Gone would be the colorful posters at convenience stores. And the cigarettes couldn’t be offered in free sample packs of fewer than 20.
There would be no “light” cigarettes, like the No. 9.
The sweeping bipartisan bill introduced this month would authorize the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco for the first time in an effort, supporters say, to help current smokers quit and prevent youth from picking up the habit. The bill, running more than 150 pages, is championed by Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and strongly opposed by Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina.
The legislation would put in place a set of 1996 rules on marketing that were blocked in 2000 when the Supreme Court ruled that existing law doesn’t allow the FDA to regulate tobacco.
It would require disclosure of cigarette ingredients to the federal government, and FDA approval of any claims that a cigarette poses a “reduced risk” to smokers. The bill also would allow the FDA to reduce harmful contents, including nicotine, though the administration would not be allowed to ban it.
“This is a very significant step,” said Paul Billings, vice president of national policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association. “This is the one thing the federal government can do to control marketing and selling the product to kids.”
Advocates also believe that in the current political landscape, the bill could pass. Democrats, who have been more likely to vote against tobacco interests, are in charge of Congress. With the federal government no longer providing federal subsidies to tobacco farmers after a 2003 buyout, tobacco interests are splintered.
Tobacco giant Philip Morris of Richmond, Va., maker of Marlboro and Virginia Slims, supports the legislation, saying regulation would bring “predictability and clear standards” to the tobacco industry.
Other companies, including R.J. Reynolds of Winston-Salem, are opposed, saying the bill prevents them from going after other brands’ smokers in a shrinking market.
“The current environment is good for us to get this done this year,” said Wendy Selig, vice president for legislative affairs for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.
First, though, the bill’s supporters must overcome Burr, a Republican who has pledged to use “every legislative tool at my disposal” to stall the bill.
Burr hails from Winston-Salem, home to R.J. Reynolds, and is a longtime tobacco supporter. He helped block this legislation when it arose in 2003, when he was a congressman.
In the 2004 election cycle, Burr received more tobacco money than any federal candidate except President Bush, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. On the Kennedy bill, he figures he could eat up five weeks of the Senate’s legislative business through various holds and procedural votes.
“Clearly, I can only cause so much havoc for so long,” Burr said Monday. “I lose this vote over time, but I sure can eat up the clock.”
Burr said he opposes the bill because it goes beyond necessary restrictions and imposes on citizens’ right to smoke.
There are already restrictions on warning labels, advertising and free samples, he said, and he worries the FDA is stretched with its current responsibilities and doesn’t need an additional burden.
But Burr also said he would be open to some regulation. He agreed that the federal government should review ingredients, for example, and that warning labels could be made bigger.