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Food & Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler finally marched his much-ballyhooed tobacco regulation proposal into the White House last week. Based on the immediate reaction of Congress and the president, it was marched right back out again.

Unveiling few details publicly, Dr. Kessler asked President Clinton to let the FDA declare nicotine a drug and replace the Federal Trade Commission as the regulator of at least several elements of the tobacco industry, reportedly including cigarette nicotine levels and cigarette advertising.

But even before the advertising and tobacco industries could express their expected opposition, the proposal was castigated by congressional Republicans.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the FDA had "lost its mind .*.*. If you want an example of big government interfering, it would be the FDA picking a brand new fight when we haven't won the far more serious fights about crack and cocaine and heroin."

President Clinton called stories suggesting the White House was considering new regulations "somewhat premature" and indicated his main concern was fighting smoking by young people.

The president asked for more specific recommendations from Dr. Kessler, and one wire service reported the administration had already decided against trying to regulate nicotine levels.

Dr. Kessler, appointed by former President Bush, last March outlined his three-step program: a reduction of tobacco's access to children and teen-agers, an increase in messages to young people emphasizing addiction and health risks, and a reduction in the "powerful imagery" in tobacco advertising.

Last week, however, he offered few details of what he turned over to the White House, other than saying smoking by young people was a focus.

While the potential for new regulations-without limits on nicotine-still may be present politically, substantial revisions seem unlikely because the tobacco industry already has either made major changes or faces limiting regulation from other agencies.

Philip Morris USA recently dropped product sampling (it now will mail coupons for free products); the tobacco industry already supports many efforts to curb youth smoking; and recent Justice Department actions already restrict sports arena ads.

That would appear to leave as the aim of any new regulations extending the product sampling ban to others or requiring additional warning labels on advertising and packaging.

The FTC, which now handles most smoking regulation, says the tobacco industry spent $6.3 billion on advertising, promotion, slotting and couponing in 1993, the last year for which figures are available. Most of the money was spent on non-media advertising.

PM promised to "vigorously" fight any change. "Commissioner Kessler apparently has a secret plan to impose more and more government regulation from Washington .... that go far beyond youth smoking and strike at the heart of the right of adults to make decisions for themselves," the company said.

Tobacco Institute spokesman Tom Lauria said: "We don't believe [the FDA] has the jurisdiction and they have enough on their plate."

"We would have concern about the regulatory responsibility for advertising shifting," said Hal Shoup, American Association of Advertising Agencies exec VP. `.... [FDA officials] have clearly demonstrated a lack of protection for First Amendent speech in their regulation of prescription and food advertising." Andrea Sachs contributed to this story.



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