WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved historic legislation that would give government broad new authority to regulate tobacco products, slash nicotine content and restrict advertising.
Health advocates cheered the 79-17 passage of the bill, saying it could prevent thousands of deaths. One in every five Americans uses tobacco, and smoking-related diseases kill nearly half a million people a year — more than any other preventable cause of death.
"Miracles still happen," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who championed the bill. "The United States Senate has finally said 'no' to Big Tobacco."
Tobacco allies said that the new regulation would cost jobs, hurt farmers and maintain the market dominance of tobacco giant Philip Morris, the maker of Marlboros.
The bill would direct the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the content and marketing of tobacco products. It would allow the agency to alter the chemical makeup to affect both the taste and, health advocates hope, the addictive qualities of tobacco products.
Under the bill, nicotine in cigarettes could be cut to almost zero — but not wiped out entirely.
"Today is a historic day for public health," said John R. Seffrin, the president of the American Cancer Society Action Network. The bill, he said, "will finally put an end to Big Tobacco's despicable marketing practices that are designed to addict children to its deadly products."
Altria Group, the owner of Philip Morris, issued a statement praising the bill but saying it's imperfect, especially when it comes to advertising restrictions.
"We have expressed First Amendment reservations about certain provisions, including those that could restrict a manufacturer's ability to communicate truthful information to adult consumers about tobacco products," Altria wrote.
"On balance, however, the legislation is an important step forward."
Thursday's vote was the first time in a decade of attempts that both chambers of Congress have passed the stringent tobacco regulation.
The Senate bill now returns to the House, where almost identical legislation was approved overwhelmingly. President Barack Obama, an occasional smoker, plans to sign the bill into law, an action he said "will make history."
Tobacco state interests fought the legislation fiercely. North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr held up Senate floor matters for nearly two weeks to protest the bill — knowing it eventually would pass. Burr is the Senate's second-highest recipient of tobacco money over his career, second only to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.
Burr argued that the FDA already is overextended and underfunded, and that the restrictions would keep entrepreneurs from developing tobacco products that could reduce the health risks to users.
The U.S. surgeon general has determined that there is no safe tobacco product.
Tobacco's influence in Washington has, on balance, waned in recent years, from a high of $10 million in contributions in the 1996 campaign cycle. Still, the industry continues to spend millions in lobbying, with by far the most amount last year — $13.8 million — spent by Altria.
Altria helped shape the FDA regulation bill and issued a statement praising the legislation but saying it is imperfect, especially when it comes to advertising restrictions.
The FDA would use hundreds of millions of dollars in fees from tobacco companies to hire scientists and impose restrictions.
Cigarettes could no longer be called "light" or "low-tar." Warnings would cover at least half of packages. Advertising would only be allowed in black-and-white. Fruit- and sweet-flavored tobacco products would be banned. Federal regulators could control the chemical makeup of tobacco products, including nicotine.
Tobacco farmers worried that new rules — yet to be written — would affect not only how much tobacco they sell but also the methods they use to grow and cure their leaf.
American Lung Association President Charles D. Connor said that despite the congressional victory, health groups must continue to promote higher tobacco taxes, new anti-smoking laws and funding for anti-smoking campaigns.
"While we celebrate this notable victory," he said, "we recognized that we have yet to win the war."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2009