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CNN Today

Supreme Court Transfers Authority Over Tobacco Regulation Back to Congress

Aired March 21, 2000 - 2:11 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: The Supreme Court says: Yes, cigarettes are a serious threat to your health; but no, the government can not treat tobacco like a drug and restrict its sale and use. If government wants that power, then, the justices say, Congress must give it.

CNN senior Washington correspondent Charles Bierbauer is at the Supreme Court to help explain today's decision -- Charles.

CHARLES BIERBAUER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, this is the other court ruling that Attorney General Janet Reno is disappointed with. The Justice Department had argued that the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, ought to have regulatory authority over tobacco.

But the justices here by the narrowest of margins, five-to-four, said that was not going to be the case. They had said that in Justice O'Connor's opinion, that they have no quarrel with the objectives that the FDA had, particularly with limiting the access of children and adolescents to tobacco, by limiting the sales, particularly through cigarette machines, by requiring more stringent laws on identification.

But the court -- or the courts said that it was up to Congress to provide that authority if it wanted to do so. And it had never done so in the entire history of the FDA legislation.

So what this does is to thrust the responsibility back to Congress. Indeed, Senator John McCain earlier today said that's what he had tried to do in 1998, legislation which failed. If Congress wants to act, Congress is going to have to pick it up from here and seek to try and pass legislation giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco.

It's a victory for tobacco, though, today, and not for the government. And that's the way the court has ruled.

Charles Bierbauer, CNN, live from the Supreme Court.

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