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FDA set to get tobacco powers

Capping a half-century battle with the tobacco industry, the Senate overwhelmingly approved landmark legislation Thursday that would for the first time give the government far-reaching power to regulate the manufacturing and marketing of cigarettes and other tobacco products.

The House was expected to follow today. The legislation:HR1256:, approved by the Senate 79 to 17, would allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate ingredients in tobacco products and ban the marketing of “light” cigarettes.

In a bid to deter new smokers, the bill also imposes strict limits on full-color advertising for cigarettes, bans billboards close to schools and requires packages to carry larger warning labels.

“Joe Camel has been sentenced and put away forever,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), referring to a youth-oriented cartoon figure long used to promote Camel cigarettes.

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President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law as early as next week.

A smoker who has tried unsuccessfully to quit, Obama issued a statement Thursday hailing the Senate action. “My administration is committed to protecting our children and reforming our healthcare system -- and moving forward with common-sense tobacco control measures is an integral part of that process,” Obama said.

The landslide vote Thursday belied the long struggle to give the FDA power to control a product that causes 400,000 deaths a year in the United States, even though the agency long has been able to regulate seemingly innocuous products like lipstick and mascara.

“The bill is the strongest anti-tobacco measure the Congress of the United States has ever passed,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. “Its breadth would have been unimaginable five years ago.”

Most tobacco companies bitterly opposed the bill but acknowledged that the vote was a measure of how much attitudes toward smoking had changed in recent years.

“As society’s views on the product have changed, that’s being reflected in the kind of legislation being passed,” said Maura Payne, a spokeswoman for Reynolds American Inc., whose subsidiary R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. manufactures Camel, Kool and other cigarette brands.

Some tobacco-state critics have warned that the bill may put a strain on the FDA’s resources, already stretched by problems in the food supply and delays in reviewing new pharmaceuticals. Skeptics also have questioned whether FDA oversight will lead consumers to believe that the product is safe.

For decades, tobacco’s power on Capitol Hill was legendary -- thanks to generous campaign contributions, well-connected lobbyists and the seniority of tobacco-state lawmakers.

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That power helped the industry survive and even thrive for years after the U.S. surgeon general in 1965 mandated that cigarette packages carry the iconic warning label: “Caution: Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health.”

Four years later, cigarette advertising was banished from television and radio. But it was two more decades before Congress passed one of the most dramatic limits on the use of tobacco products -- the 1990 ban on smoking on U.S. domestic airplane flights.

After the Supreme Court in 2000 ruled that the FDA did not have authority to regulate tobacco, anti-cigarette forces in Congress began the long journey to enact legislation that would give the agency that power.

The political landscape improved for tobacco foes as the smoking population dwindled -- an estimated 20% of American adults now smoke, down from 42% in 1965 -- and the health risks became better known.

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Public health advocates have battled the industry through lawsuits as well as legislation at all levels of government. And early this year, Congress approved the largest-ever increase in the federal cigarette tax -- raising it 62 cents to $1.01 a pack -- to pay for expanding a federal-state healthcare program for children.

Still, this year’s FDA legislation faced continued resistance from tobacco-state lawmakers. Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) and other critics argued that the bill should focus more on reducing the risk of tobacco products than on preventing people from smoking in the first place.

“They are not doing anything to reduce the risk of death or disease,” Burr said before the Senate rejected an amendment to rewrite the bill to allow more “reduced risk” products like smokeless tobacco.

The 17 senators who voted against the bill were mostly from tobacco-growing states; all but one were Republicans.

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Other GOP lawmakers joined Democrats in hailing the bill as an important public health measure that was especially welcome as Congress embarks on an overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system.

“We all bear the increased financial cost of the diminished health of smokers,” said Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, ranking Republican on the health committee. “Every senior who smokes creates a further strain on Medicare.”

California’s Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, voted for the bill.

The House passed a similar version of the measure earlier this year. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Thursday that the changes were acceptable and that the House would pass the Senate bill rather than slow the process with a negotiated compromise.

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The bill would allow the FDA to regulate and require disclosure of what is in tobacco products. It could put new limits on harmful ingredients and prohibit tobacco companies from promoting light cigarettes as safer alternatives.

The measure also would allow the agency to ban most flavorings, although menthol would still be permitted.

“The idea that you can have cherry-flavored cigarettes -- that’s aimed at children,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who led the debate on the bill in the absence of longtime tobacco foe Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is battling brain cancer.

Many senators praised efforts to discourage young people from taking up the habit. The bill would ban outdoor tobacco ads within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, and prohibit tobacco companies from sponsoring sports and entertainment events.

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Kennedy praised the effort in a statement issued after the vote. “Miracles still happen,” he said. “The United States Senate has finally said ‘no’ to big tobacco.”

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janet.hook@latimes.com

Noam N. Levey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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