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Supreme Court Rules FDA Can't Regulate Tobacco as DrugAired March 21, 2000 - 10:15 a.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Now from the Supreme Court, the developing story, Charles Bierbauer tracking this one.
Charles, what do we know?
CHARLES BIERBAUER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Bill.
It's a day that could only make the tobacco companies smile up here at the Supreme Court, where the court has ruled by the narrowest of margins, five-to-four, that the Food and Drug Administration does not have the authority to regulate tobacco products. This is one of the major cases before this Supreme Court today.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, delivering the majority opinion, said that there is no question about the gravity of the issue. She said that it is probably tobacco the single most troubling health problem that the country has. Nevertheless, she found in the law no place where Congress has given the authority to regulate tobacco to the Food and Drug Administration. It was the FDA, which was appealing a lower court ruling here against the tobacco companies. And it's the tobacco companies that prevailed.
This turned very much on the question of what the FDA's mandate is. And the mandate, as interpreted by the Court, is to regulate safe drugs and safe medical devices. And, as Justice O'Connor pointed out, tobacco is hard to be considered a safe drug, because even the tobacco companies acknowledge that it is addictive. The suggestion being that, if the FDA were to regulate it, it would have to ban it.
Now, the dissent before justices and the dissent led by Justice Breyer said the majority finds cigarettes so dangerous that the FDA would require them to be banned. He disagrees, thinking that the agency could have jurisdiction and find another remedy.
Nevertheless, this remains the victory today, at least for the tobacco companies, and will likely thrust the whole question of tobacco regulation back to Congress and back to other areas. But it takes it out of the hands of the FDA.
Charles Bierbauer, CNN, reporting live from the Supreme Court.
HEMMER: Charles, if we can keep you here just for a second, if we can broaden this issue just a bit here. What does this ruling mean, or could mean possibly, for regulating tobacco across the country, especially as it refers to minors in this country?
BIERBAUER: Well, there have been, as you well know, many efforts to regulate tobacco in -- starting with the agreement forged by the State Attorneys General. There's also a huge case pending down in Florida, that will have a significant impact.
This does not preclude regulation, but it simply takes it out of the jurisdiction of the FDA. It means, if Congress wants to regulate tobacco, Congress is going to have to pass new laws. And we know that Congress failed to do that in the past couple of years, even after the Attorneys General had come to their agreement with the tobacco companies. It basically thrusts things back in the hands of the state and federal legislatures to take what action they feel might be taken and that would prove constitutional. This was not the means to do so.
HEMMER: Charles, in the 10 seconds we have left, is this a big surprise? Or was this expected by anyone based on this ruling?
BIERBAUER: Well, as you can see with the five-to-four Court, it's never a sure thing. It's one vote swinging here or there. What it breaks down is that, by and large, it's the conservatives -- and that includes Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is often the swing vote -- who said that the authority is not there. It's the liberal wing of the Court before and the minority who said it should be, that some mechanism should be found for the FDA to regulate. So, not surprising in its five-four split. But you can never tell which way that fifth vote is going to go. This was a close one -- Bill.
HEMMER: Charles Bierbauer from the Supreme Court. Charles, thank you, and we hope to get you out of the rain very quickly there. Charles Bierbauer from Washington, thanks.
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