WASHINGTON — More than four decades after the surgeon general declared smoking a health hazard, the Senate on Thursday approved landmark legislation that would give the government sweeping new power to oversee tobacco.
The legislation, which the White House said President Barack Obama would sign as soon as it reached his desk, would enable the Food and Drug Administration to impose potentially strict new controls on the making and marketing of products that eventually kill half their regular users.
The Senate vote was 79-17, with both of Florida's senators, Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Bill Nelson, voting in favor. The House, which passed a similar bill in April, may vote on the Senate version as soon as today.
"This is a historic step changing the nature of tobacco in society forever," said Clifford Douglas, head of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network, which has extensively studied the health effects of smoking and was one of many groups that have pushed for tobacco regulation.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the new law would reduce youth smoking by 11 percent and adult smoking by 2 percent over the next decade, in addition to reductions already achieved through other actions, like higher taxes and smoke-free indoor space laws.
Advocates argue that FDA oversight is the best hope for reducing the 400,000 deaths each year from tobacco use and the $100 billion in annual health care costs linked to tobacco.
Congress has been trying for more than a decade to regulate tobacco, coming close several times but faltering in the face of opposition from the tobacco lobby, the White House or procedural hangups. But over the years, changing social attitudes toward smoking helped transform the idea of regulation from controversial to common sense.
"Miracles still happen," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said in a statement. Kennedy is battling brain cancer and missed Thursday's vote.
The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, as it is called, stops short of empowering the FDA to outlaw smoking or ban nicotine — strictures that even most antismoking advocates acknowledged were not politically feasible and might drive people addicted to nicotine into a criminal black market.
But the law would give the FDA power to set standards that could reduce nicotine content and regulate chemicals in cigarette smoke. The law also bans most tobacco flavorings, which are considered a lure to first-time smokers. Health advocates predict that FDA standards could eventually reduce some of the 60 carcinogens and 4,000 toxins in cigarette smoke, or make them taste so bad they deter users.
The law would tighten restrictions on the marketing and advertising of tobacco products. Colorful ads and store displays will be replaced by black-and-white-only text. Outdoor advertising of tobacco within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds would be illegal.
And cigarette companies will be required to stop using terms like "light" and "low tar" by next year and to place large, graphic health warnings on their packages by 2012.
Industry analysts say that the imposition of fees on cigarette companies to pay for the creation and administration of a new FDA tobacco oversight department, which could eventually reach 6 cents a pack, could further raise the financial cost of smoking.
The law would be the first big federal step against smoking since the 1971 ban against tobacco advertising on television and radio and the 1988 rules against smoking on airline flights.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.