The US Congress voted overwhelmingly Friday to grant the government historic powers to regulate cigarette makers, overturning decades of resistance by the powerful tobacco industry.
The legislation, set to be signed into law later Friday by President Barack Obama, grants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a regulatory body, the authority to regulate nicotine levels, ban added flavorings and require tough new warning labels in a bid to curb use among young people.
Obama hailed the passage of the measure as a "victory," saying the bill "truly defines change in Washington," while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the blow delivered to Big Tobacco was "historic."
The House of Representatives, which passed a similar bill in April, voted 307 to 97 to endorse a version of the legislation adopted by the Senate on Thursday by 79 votes against 17.
"We've known for years, even decades, about the harmful, addictive, and often deadly effects of tobacco products. Each year, Americans pay nearly 100 billion dollars in added health care costs due to smoking," Obama told reporters at the White House just minutes after the House approved the bill.
"Each day, about 1,000 young people under the age of 18 become regular smokers," added Obama, who has admitted to being an occasional smoker.
"For over a decade, leaders of both parties have fought to prevent tobacco companies from marketing their products to children and provide the public with the information they need to understand what a dangerous habit this is."
The measure places strict limits on tobacco advertising in publications with a significant teenage readership, and bans the use of words like "mild" or "light" in ads that makes tobacco products seem safer.
The FDA will now be required to enforce a rule banning all outdoor tobacco advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, and the bill ends all tobacco-brand sponsorship of sport and entertainment events.
Under the measure, tobacco companies must disclose to the FDA the ingredients in their products, and allow the agency to require changes to protect public health, though not to reduce nicotine content to zero or ban a class of tobacco products.
Larger, more specific health warnings, will now have to cover the top third of the front and rear panels of the package and give the FDA the power to require graphic warning labels that cover half of the front and rear panels.
The bill was backed by health groups like the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association for its curbs on smoking, the number one cause of preventable death in the United States.
Supporters of the legislation say it is needed because 400,000 Americans die from tobacco-related illnesses each year and more than 1,000 children start smoking each day.
"Passage of this historic legislation by both the House and Senate is a victory for public health over Big Tobacco," American Medical Association president Nancy Nielsen said in a statement.
"The actions resulting from this landmark legislation may make people think twice before picking up a cigarette."
In passing the legislation, Pelosi said, "we are taking a giant step toward making America healthier."
Foes said the bill would suck down FDA funds needed to meet the agency's already cash-strapped core missions, such as ensuring food safety and testing cancer treatments and medication to ease chronic pain.
The main opponents of the legislation were Republicans from tobacco-producing states, such as top golden leaf harvester North Carolina, and others who expressed concern at government encroachment on the private sector.
Altria Group, which owns Philip Morris USA, the biggest US tobacco company and maker of Marlboro cigarettes, said Thursday that it supported the legislation and "tough but reasonable federal regulation of tobacco products by the Food and Drug Administration."
But it expressed concern over provisions "that could restrict a manufacturer's ability to communicate truthful information to adult consumers about tobacco products."
Other tobacco companies have more vigorously opposed the bill.