WASHINGTON -- A closely divided U.S. Supreme Court
ruled on Tuesday that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
lacks the power to regulate tobacco products, handing President
Clinton a stinging setback in the effort to curb youth smoking.
The nation's highest court by a 5-4 vote ruled that the
federal agency overstepped its authority in 1996 when it issued
unprecedented, sweeping regulations for cigarettes and smokeless
The decision was a major victory for the tobacco industry,
which has been hit with a number of civil lawsuits seeking huge
damages for smoking-related illnesses.
The ruling sent the stock prices of Philip Morris Cos. Inc.,
the world's largest cigarette maker, and other tobacco companies
sharply higher on Wall Street.
Anti-tobacco activists expressed disappointment over the
ruling while the tobacco industry applauded it. The ruling sends
the issue back to Congress, and Clinton immediately urged
congressional leaders to approve tobacco legislation.
The FDA regulations, called the most important public health and safety rules in the past 50 years, sought to restrict the
sale of tobacco products to minors and to limit advertising and
marketing by tobacco companies.
The regulations were aimed at the approximately 1 million
children and adolescents who begin to smoke every year.
One of every three young people who become regular smokers
will die prematurely from a tobacco-related disease, the FDA
said, adding that more than 400,000 people in the United States
die each year from tobacco-related illnesses.
Legislation To Be Introduced
Some lawmakers plan to introduce legislation to explicitly
give the FDA authority over tobacco, although it seems unlikely
the Republican-controlled Congress will approve such a major
initiative before the November elections.
On an trip in India, Clinton issued a statement in New Delhi
urging Congress to act. ''Even some in the tobacco industry --
after fighting the FDA rule in court -- now say they support
regulation of tobacco,'' he said.
Vice President Al Gore said, ''Tobacco is one of the most
addictive substances known to man and should be regulated as a
Gore, who is likely to face Republican George W. Bush in the
presidential race, said, ''It is time for the Republican
Congress and George Bush to show their independence from Big
Tobacco and do the right thing by passing legislation.''
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. said it was pleased by the Supreme
Court ruling and expressed a willingness ''to begin a dialogue
with Congress on reasonable options for additional regulation of
the design and manufacture of cigarettes.''
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in the court's majority
opinion that the case involved one of the most troubling public
health problems facing the nation -- thousands of premature
deaths that occur each year from tobacco use.
''In this case, we believe that Congress has clearly
precluded the FDA from asserting jurisdiction to regulate
tobacco products,'' she concluded in the 39-page opinion.
O'Connor said the FDA had ''amply demonstrated'' that
tobacco use, especially among children and adolescents, posed
perhaps the single most significant threat to public health in
the United States.
No matter how important, conspicuous and controversial the
issue and regardless of how likely the public is to hold the
executive branch politically accountable, an administrative
agency's power to regulate in the public interest must always be
grounded in a valid grant of authority from Congress,'' she
O'Connor was joined in the majority by cigarette smokers
William Rehnquist, the chief justice, and Antonin Scalia, former
cigar smoker Clarence Thomas, and nonsmoker Anthony Kennedy.
They represent the court's most conservative members.
Dissenting were justices Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, all nonsmokers and the
court's most liberal members.
Taking the unusual step of reading his dissent from the
bench, Breyer said he would have ruled that the law gives the
FDA the power to regulate tobacco.
''The upshot is that the court today holds that a regulatory
statute aimed at unsafe drugs and devices does not authorize
regulation of a drug (nicotine) and a device (a cigarette) that
the court itself finds unsafe,'' Breyer said.
He noted that ''tobacco products kill more people in this
country every year than ... AIDS, car accidents, alcohol,
homicides, illegal drugs, suicides and fires, combined.''
- 109 Tobacco