WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled today the government lacks authority to regulate tobacco as an addictive drug, rejecting the Clinton administration's main anti-smoking initiative .
Ruling 5-4, the justices said the Food and Drug Administration overreached when it reversed a decades-old policy in 1996 and sought to crack down on cigarette sales to minors.
''We believe that Congress has clearly precluded the FDA from asserting jurisdiction to regulate tobacco products,'' Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court.
''By no means do we question the seriousness of the problem that the FDA has sought to address,'' O'Connor said. ''The agency has amply demonstrated that tobacco use, particularly among children and adolescents, poses perhaps the single most significant threat to public health in the United States.''
However, she added, ''it is plain that Congress has not given the FDA the authority that it seeks to exercise here.''
O'Connor's opinion was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
Dissenting were Justices Stephen G. Breyer, John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Writing for the four, Breyer said the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act allows the FDA to regulate tobacco. ''Far more than most, this particular drug and device risks the life-threatening harms that administrative regulation seeks to rectify,'' he added.
John F. Banzhaf of Action on Smoking and Health, which supported the government's appeal, said he was disappointed but not surprised and said the ruling ''will put tremendous pressure on Congress, especially during an election year, to ensure that nicotine does not remain the only totally unregulated drug.''
On Wall Street, most tobacco stocks gained ground this morning after the ruling. Philip Morris was up 93 3/4 cents at $20.87 1/2 at late morning on the New York Stock Exchange, where R.J. Reynolds Tobacco was up 43 3/4 cents at $16.93 3/4, and Loews, which owns Lorillard, was up $2.12 1/2 at $47.25. But the U.S. shares of British American Tobacco, which owns Brown & Williamson, were down 37 1/2 cents at $$9.87 1/2.
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