Health groups are trying to generate momentum for legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products.
The FDA couldn't ban nicotine outright, but the legislation would give it the power to reduce nicotine levels, as well as require larger and more informative health warnings.
The legislation would also prohibit terms such as "light," "mild" and "low-tar," which officials say can mislead consumers into believing that certain cigarettes are safer than others.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was to take up the legislation Tuesday.
Dr. Elmer Huerta, president-elect of the American Cancer Society, was on the witness list. He said the legislation is a historic opportunity to reduce health care disparities.
"Tobacco-related cancers remain disproportionately high among lower-income and minority communities," Huerta said in a statement.
Previous legislative efforts to give the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco have faltered. In 2004, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, called the legislation an effort to "ban tobacco in America."
Democrats now control both congressional chambers, giving the legislation's prospects a major boost.
More than 40 million people are hooked on cigarettes, said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate committee.
"FDA action can play a major role in breaking the gruesome cycle that seduces millions of teenagers into a lifetime of addiction and premature death," Kennedy said.
Some Republican lawmakers will voice opposition to the legislation. One argument against the bill is that the FDA is having a hard enough time doing its job without adding such a major responsibility.
"The FDA approves cures, not poisons," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. "Forcing the FDA to regulate tobacco but not letting them ban it would undermine the long history of the agency protecting and promoting the public health."
For decades, the FDA said it lacked authority to regulate tobacco so long as cigarette makers did not claim that smoking provided health benefits. In 1996, it reversed course and cited new evidence that the industry intended its products to feed the nicotine habits of the roughly 45 million Americans who smoke.
Tobacco companies sued, and the case eventually landed in the Supreme Court. In 2000, the court ruled 5-4 that Congress did not authorize the FDA to regulate tobacco.
Source: AP Features