WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a landmark tobacco bill today that would give the federal government sweeping and unprecedented authority to regulate tobacco products and advertising. Reaction in Minnesota was swift and sometimes extreme to the legislation that would have a significant impact on the state.
“Wow, I can only say, ‘fantastic,’ ” said Preston, Minn., City Attorney David A. Joerg.
“Simply put, it is unconstitutional,” rebutted Tom Bryant, executive director of the Minnesota Wholesale Marketers Association. “It could result in a new era of prohibition.”
The measure passed 298-112, but a tougher fight is expected in the Senate, where Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has threatened a filibuster. North Carolina is the nation’s leading tobacco-producing state.
From Joerg’s perspective, the measure is long overdue. The city of Preston has a unique history with this type of legislation. “I’ll never forget,” said Joerg.
In 1994, the small city of about 1,400 banned advertising of tobacco products in all commercial establishments. Only black-and-white signs with simple lettering were permitted, according to Joerg.
“After they passed the ordinance, I had the joy of going into these stores and enforcing it,” Joerg said. “All complied, except one, which was the One Stop convenience store on the highway.”
The owner of that store sued the city, arguing that the ordinance violated the owner’s First Amendment rights and had hurt sales.
The city lost in district court with the judge ruling that the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act preempted the ordinance. The 1965 law was basically a tradeoff between the federal government and the tobacco companies. It required tobacco companies to include health warnings on their cigarette packaging and print advertisements. In exchange, the legislation restricted states from enacting laws regulating advertisings or the promotion of cigarettes.
Now, more than a decade after the Minnesota district court blocked the city of Preston from limiting tobacco advertising in its stores, the House-passed legislation would give the secretary of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the power to do just that. The bill would allow the FDA to ban almost all advertising in facilities that are not adult-only (bars, for example, could advertise tobacco).
More broadly, the legislation would for the first time allow the FDA to regulate — but not ban — the contents of tobacco products, make their ingredients public and prohibit flavoring such as clove, strawberry and vanilla in tobacco products. It would also require larger warning labels.
“This is a very serious outcome for hardworking retailers who rely on tobacco sales as part of their business,” said Bryant.
Minnesota Democratic Reps. Tim Walz, Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison and Jim Oberstar voted for the bill, along with Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Ellison on Wednesday. “It’s going to save lives.”
The Obama administration also supports the legislation, a change from the Bush administration, which threatened to veto the House-passed measure last year.
At that time, the Senate failed to take up the measure because of resistance from a handful of tobacco-state lawmakers. This time around, supporters of the measure have said that the Senate is likely to take up their version of the bill later this month.
House lawmakers opposed to the measure, however, argued Wednesday that the bill had deep flaws.
They cited what they called the FDA’s shoddy regulatory track record, the potential for the legislation to hurt farmers, and possible First Amendment concerns.
Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Indiana, offered a bipartisan amendment that he argued addressed these issues. Among other differences, it would have created a different agency within the Health and Human Services Department to regulate tobacco products.
Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson voted for the amendment along with Minnesota Republican Reps. John Kline and Michele Bachmann. Paulsen also voted for the amendment before voting for the main bill after the amendment failed by 284-142.
“I am with the [tobacco] growers,” said Peterson, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee. “They are concerned about losing jobs and losing the industry. This is largely to support them.”
But, the American Lung Association and the American Medical Association opposed the Buyer proposal, saying that it would not provide adequate regulation of tobacco companies.
Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.