US lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Thursday to give the government unprecedented powers over the tobacco industry, including new curbs on marketing tactics and cigarette ingredients.
The US House of Representatives approved The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act by a 298-112 margin, sending the legislation to face an uncertain fate in the Senate, where it died in 2008.
"This is truly a historic day in the fight against tobacco," said Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California, the measure's chief author. "Now we all can breathe a little easier."
Supporters of the bill hope that backing from US President Barack Obama, who admits to having an occasional smoke, and years of successfully expanding restrictions on who can smoke, and what, and where, will spell success in 2009.
"FDA regulation of cigarettes, the most lethal of all consumer products, is long overdue. I am confident that the Senate will approve it expeditiously, and send it to President Obama for his signature," said Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, the measure's Senate champion.
The bill, backed by health groups like the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and American Lung Association, gives the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the power to regulate tobacco products.
Waxman says the legislation is needed because 400,000 Americans die from tobacco-related illnesses each year and more than 1,000 children start smoking each day.
Foes say that it 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 measure would require the FDA to enforce a rule that would ban all outdoor tobacco advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, and end all tobacco-brand sponsorship of sport and entertainment events.
It would also limit tobacco advertising in publications with a significant teenage readership, in outdoor areas where children can be present and to black-and-white text only.
It would also restrict vending machine and self-service sales to adult-only facilities and require vendors to verify age for all over-the-counter sales of tobacco products.
The legislation would require tobacco companies to 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.
It would also require larger, more specific health warnings, which would 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 FDA is strapped for resources and failing in many of its core missions," said Republican Mike Rogers of Michigan. "This bill today takes away precious resources."
"The bill is supported by 1,000 public health and other groups," countered Waxman. "They would not support this bill if it did what the gentleman from Michigan claims it does."