WASHINGTON — The Senate struck a historic blow against smoking in the United States Thursday, voting overwhelmingly to give regulators new power to limit nicotine in the cigarettes that kill nearly a half-million Americans a year, to drastically curtail ads that glorify tobacco and to ban flavored products aimed at spreading the habit to young people.
President Barack Obama, who has spoken of his own struggle to quit smoking, said he was eager to sign the legislation after minor differences with a House version are worked out — and the House planned a vote for Friday. Cigarette foes said the measure would not only cut deaths but reduce the $100 billion in annual health care costs linked to tobacco.
Obama's signature would then add tobacco to other huge, nationally important areas that have come under greater government supervision since his presidency began. Those include banking, housing and autos. Still to come, if Congress can agree: health care.
Supporters of regulation of tobacco have struggled for more than a decade to overcome powerful resistance — from the industry and elsewhere. In 2000 the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Food and Drug Administration did not have the authority under current law to regulate tobacco products, and the Bush administration opposed several previous efforts by Congress to write a new law.
Fierce opposition by the industry and tobacco-state lawmakers had prevented passage for years, along with veto threats by the George W. Bush White House. In the end, the nation's biggest tobacco company supported the measure, though rivals suggested that was because it could lock in Philip Morris' share of the market.
Cigarette smoking kills about 400,000 people in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 45 million U.S. adults are smokers, though the prevalence has fallen since the U.S. surgeon general's warning 45 years ago that tobacco causes lung cancer.
The legislation, one of the most dramatic anti-smoking initiatives since the surgeon general's report, would give the drug agency authority to regulate the content, marketing and advertising of cigarettes and other tobacco products.
"This legislation represents the strongest action Congress has ever taken to reduce tobacco use, the leading preventable cause of death in the United States," declared Matthew Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids.
The 79-17 Senate vote sent the measure back to the House, which in April passed a similar but not identical version. House acceptance of the Senate bill would send it directly to Obama, who said Thursday that final passage "will make history by giving the scientists and medical experts at the FDA the power to take sensible steps."
"At any given moment, millions are struggling with their habit or worrying about loved ones who smoke," said Obama.
Thursday's legislation gives the FDA power to evaluate the contents of tobacco products and to order changes or bans on those that are a danger to public health. The agency could limit nicotine yields but not ban nicotine or cigarettes.
Regulators could prohibit tobacco companies from using candy or other flavors in cigarettes that tend to attract young smokers, and restrict advertising in publications often read by teenagers. Rules on sales to minors would be toughened, as would warning labels. Tobacco companies would have to get FDA approval for new products, and would be barred from using terms such as "light" or "mild" that imply a smaller health risk.
Costs of the new program would be paid for through a fee imposed on tobacco companies.
"This is a bill that will protect children and will protect America," said Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat and a leading supporter. "Every day that we don't act, 3,500 American kids — children — will light up for the first time. That is enough to fill 70 school buses."
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that FDA regulation could reduce underage smoking by 11 percent over the next decade.
The bill, said American Heart Association chief executive Nancy Brown, "provides a tremendous opportunity to finally hold tobacco companies accountable and restrict efforts to addict more children and adults."
The tobacco lobby, contended Durbin, has long been the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill, "and they managed to create an exemption in virtually every law so that no federal agency could take a look at them and regulate them."
But the industry has also taken hits in recent years as the dangers of smoking became more apparent and states moved to limit smoking in public places. In 1998 the industry agreed to pay the states $206 billion to help cover health care costs, and this year Congress raised the federal cigarette tax by 62 cents, to $1.01 a pack, to fund a health care program for children.
The largest U.S. tobacco manufacturer, Philip Morris, USA, has come out in support of the legislation. Its parent company, Altria Group, said in a statement that on balance, "the legislation is an important step forward to achieve the goal we share with others to provide federal regulation of tobacco products."
Its main rivals, however, have voiced opposition, arguing in part that FDA restrictions on new products will lock in Philip Morris' share of the market.