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Wednesday, March 22, 2000

Congress must act
on tobacco regulation

Bullet The issue: The U.S. Supreme Court has denied the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco as an addictive drug.

Bullet Our view: Congress should create that authority somewhere in government.

THE U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of the Clinton administration's attempt to regulate tobacco as an addictive drug places before Congress the issue of whether the government should have such powers. President Clinton has called on Congress to grant authority to the Food and Drug Administration but that is not likely. A different approach may be more suitable.

The Supreme Court's decision does not end the tobacco industry's troubles. It must abide by restrictions imposed by the $246-billion settlements that resolved state claims against the industry.

A Florida jury will hear final arguments later this month in a class-action case brought by a smoker that could result in damages totaling in the billions of dollars. Other lawsuits are filed against tobacco companies with regularity.

The FDA had maintained since its creation in 1938 that it had no authority to regulate tobacco, but it reversed its position in 1996. The agency mainly regulates drugs that are offered to the public for medicinal purposes.

Although tobacco companies insisted until recently that cigarettes were not harmful, they no longer claimed that their products provided health benefits. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had never given the FDA authority to regulate tobacco as a drug.

State laws already ban tobacco sales to minors. The FDA adopted that ban as a federal rule and required stores to demand photo identification of tobacco purchasers under age 27 and limited cigarette vending machines to adults-only areas, such as bars.

Other federal rules aimed at regulating tobacco have been the creations of Congress: a ban on advertising tobacco on television, prohibition of smoking on airplanes and a requirement of health warning labels on cigarette packages.

Tobacco company lawyers contended that the FDA's conclusion that cigarettes are unsafe and dangerous would have led, under the agency's rules, to a ban on all tobacco sales. The FDA denied any prospect of imposing a total ban.

"The inescapable conclusion is that there is no room for tobacco products within the (FDA's) regulatory scheme," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the court's majority opinion. "If they cannot be used safely for any therapeutic purpose, and yet they cannot be banned, they simply do not fit."

Where do they fit? That is a question for Congress to answer.

The Supreme Court decision does not bar federal regulation of the tobacco industry. The power of nicotine addiction and the health risks entailed in smoking require that regulatory authority be created somewhere in the federal government.

Tougher penalties for
unlicensed contractors

Bullet The issue: Measures before the Legislature would authorize tougher penalties for unlicensed contractors.

Bullet Our view: The current law isn't an effective deterrent and stronger penalties are needed.

UNLICENSED contractors constitute an underground economy. They offer to do work on the cheap but often do shoddy work or fail to complete jobs.

Moreover, they don't pay taxes and fees. They offer unfair competition to licensed contractors and abuse consumer confidence.

State law gives the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs authority to fine unlicensed contractors $500 or as much as 40 percent of the cost of a project. Repeat offenders can be fined as much as $5,000.

But a spokesman for licensed contractors told legislators that the law isn't serving its purpose as a deterrent -- offenders usually get away with a warning or a small fine -- and stronger measures are needed.

Bills before the current session of the Legislature would authorize the state to seize tools, vehicles and other equipment used by unlicensed contractors and require them to repay any money received from customers.

If enacted, those measures could go far to discourage such work. The bills are supported by licensed contractors and subcontractors, construction unions and the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.

Sen. Brian Taniguchi, co-chairman of the Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, supports tougher measures, contending that the current law isn't working.

However, an opponent, Republican Rep. Jim Rath, argues that the proposals would penalize people who are struggling to survive in a weak economy.

There are undoubtedly hardship cases among the unlicensed contractors resulting from the collapse of the construction industry.

However, contractors who obey the law and obtain licenses deserve protection from unfair competition. Consumers deserve protection from contractors who don't do the job right or fail to complete it. The state should get the taxes and fees due it.

Seizing equipment and vehicles and forcing full repayment seems draconian. Perhaps those steps could be reserved for repeat offenders. But the need for sterner measures seems clear.

Published by Liberty Newspapers Limited Partnership

Rupert E. Phillips, CEO

John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

David Shapiro, Managing Editor

Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor

Frank Bridgewater & Michael Rovner, Assistant Managing Editors

A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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