Aggressive action against the tobacco industry is expected to gather steam with the arrival of the new Congress and the beginning of the Obama administration, the New York Times reported, Jan. 5.

The early legislative agenda will focus on raising cigarette taxes, enacting legislation that gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to regulate cigarettes, and ratification of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. As a senator, Barack Obama supported all of this legislation; no announcement has been made about any action he will take as president.

Matthew Myers, president of the Washington advocacy group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the Obama election “changes everything.”

“I think that 2009 has the potential to be the most historic year in making progress on tobacco at the federal level since the first surgeon general’s report in 1964,” Myers said.

Democratic leaders in both the House of Representatives and the Senate said they plan to move quickly to raise the cigarette tax by 61 cents to $1 dollar a pack.  The $35 billion in revenue expected from the new tax is designated to finance the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Legislation to empower the FDA to regulate tobacco is also on a fast track for approval. “They’re anticipating it going through reasonably soon, after many years of battle,” said Clifford Douglas, executive director of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network.

Ratification of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control will also be addressed in the new legislative session. The treaty places strict controls on the ability of tobacco industry executives to influence international policy decisions on the sales and marketing of tobacco products.

Tobacco executives acknowledge the inevitability of the new measures but continue to focus on the relative health of their industry. “Especially when you compare with some other businesses, we’re in really good shape,” said David Sylvia, spokesman for the Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris International.

The tobacco industry would prefer that the Obama administration develop a “harm reduction” strategy toward cigarettes, rather than a strict cessation approach, allowing the promotion of some products as safer than others. “We think we should work with the FDA on that,” Sylvia said.