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December 20, 2014

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LETTer FROM WASHINGTON:

Ensign, Heller opposed tobacco bill

Measure limits advertising, compels disclosure of cigarette ingredients

One day, as smokers wait in Nevada’s casinos for their next hand or roll of the dice, they will have a little something extra to consider as they pass the time.

Cigarette packages will be splashed with big, new warning labels, graphics that take up the top 50 percent of the front and back of each package, under a bill passed by Congress last week.

The legislation will also require tobacco companies for the first time to disclose to the Food and Drug Administration the ingredients used in making cigarettes, including nicotine content and additives that can make their products more addictive.

The bill is the result of a 20-year effort waged by health advocates to warn consumers of health risks of smoking.

“This bill has obviously been a long time coming,” President Barack Obama said Friday in brief remarks at the White House Rose Garden.

The president, who has struggled with his own nicotine addiction, is expected to soon sign the bill into law. “After a decade of opposition, all of us are finally about to achieve the victory with this bill, a bill that truly defines change in Washington,” Obama said.

The bill drew bipartisan support in both chambers, but votes fell along party lines among Nevada’s delegation in Washington.

The House initially passed the bill 298-112, with 70 Republicans joining 228 Democrats. Nevada’s Democratic Reps. Shelley Berkley and Dina Titus voted yes, and Republican Rep. Dean Heller voted no.

The final version passed the House on Friday with a slightly wider margin, but the Nevadans’ votes were unchanged.

The Senate similarly moved the bill 79-17 last week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid voted yes, Republican Sen. John Ensign voted no.

Some critics believe the bill did not go far enough to regulate tobacco and its use.

The American Lung Association, which backed the bill, said more than 392,000 people die every year in this country from tobacco-caused disease, “making it the leading cause of preventable death.” Another 50,000 die from exposure to secondhand smoke.

But the fact that rang out in Washington as this debate unfolded was the 3,500 kids who every day take their first drags.

That fact brought out stories from the old days.

On the floor of the Senate, Reid recounted a scene he has written about in his autobiography, when he is a young boy riding in a car with his older brother, Don, behind the wheel:

Don is smoking a Kool cigarette and Reid, a decade younger, begs him for a puff.

The older brother instructs the younger to breathe in as hard as possible.

Reid put his fingers to his lips on the Senate floor, demonstrating how he took that first knockout drag.

The now-Mormon senator said he has been smoke-free ever since.

For some of those first-time smokers, “it will also be their last,” Reid said. “They will feel as I did when my older brother let me try my first cigarette — and like me, they will say that once is enough.

“But for far too many others, it will become a part of their daily lives.”

The law establishes limits on advertising to children and provides for stepped-up enforcement on sales to minors. Within three months of its enactment, companies also must stop selling sweet-flavored cigarettes that critics say are marketed to kids.

The new warning labels will come about more slowly. The FDA has two years to devise them.

Nevada has been reluctant to outlaw smoking on casino floors, though other parts of resorts have made smoking off limits. A voter-passed 2006 initiative prohibits smoking in Nevada’s restaurants and taverns that serve food, among other places.

When (and if) the new labels emerge, smokers in Nevada can review the new warnings as they take a drag, pondering their next bet.

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