A bill to give the Food and Drug Administration authority over tobacco products and their advertising and sale is likely to be marked up in the next several weeks, and the Senate may vote on it before summer.

At a Feb. 27 Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee hearing, Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, sponsor of the measure (S 625), heard from tobacco and health experts about how the government might more strictly regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products.

The bill would grant the FDA authority over most tobacco advertising as well as some ability to regulate, or at least disclose, the ingredients of cigarettes. It would subject to scrutiny industry claims about “light” and “low-tar” cigarettes and would limit or eliminate advertising targeted toward children. The agency’s regulatory activities would be paid for with a “user fee” taken from tobacco companies.

Kennedy’s bill would not allow the FDA to ban tobacco or nicotine, and the panel of tobacco and health experts unanimously agreed that prohibition was a bad idea.

The legislation is similar to a 2004 proposal that almost cleared Congress before being stripped from a larger corporate tax bill. With a Democratic House, Kennedy, D-Mass., believes the bill will have enough support to clear. (Background, 2004 Almanac, p. 13-5)

Several Republicans on the committee questioned whether the FDA is the best choice to regulate tobacco, and the panel’s top GOP member, Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, has made his opposition clear. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said the FDA is not the best agency for the job, given the bill’s focus on advertising and marketing. Coburn said the Federal Trade Commission might be better suited to regulate the industry’s advertising claims.

Jack Reed, D-R.I., said that although the FDA might not be perfect, it is the best government agency to enforce regulation.

“Finding fault with the FDA is a way of stopping any type of progress with respect to regulating what’s in cigarettes,” Reed said.

Enzi argued, as he has in the past, that the measure should give the FDA the power of prohibition — a move that would significantly complicate efforts to enact the legislation.

The bill has attracted an eclectic group of supporters and detractors. Philip Morris, the nation’s largest cigarette manufacturer, supports it. The advertising industry came out strongly against the bill, saying the restrictions on tobacco marketing would hurt the ad trade. And other, smaller cigarette manufacturers have claimed that advertising restrictions would help only Philip Morris increase its dominant market share.

One strange bedfellow of the bill was Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, an organization of some 44,000 Baptist churches.

Land’s generally conservative organization has promoted anti-smoking efforts and encouraged Baptist tobacco farmers to switch to other crops.