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Bill gives FDA tobacco oversight

WASHINGTON – 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 legislation, which was approved by the Senate 79-17 and is expected to pass the House today, 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.

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill into law as early as next week. Obama, a smoker who has tried unsuccessfully to quit, issued a statement Thursday hailing the Senate action.

“My administration is committed to protecting our children and reforming our health care 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 such as lipstick and mascara.

Most tobacco companies bitterly opposed the bill, but acknowledged that the vote was a measure of how much attitudes toward smoking have 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, whose subsidiary R.J. Reynolds 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.

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.”

Public-health advocates have battled the industry through lawsuits as well as legislation at all levels of government. And early in 2009, 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 health care program for children.

Still, this year’s FDA legislation faced continued resistance from tobacco state lawmakers such as Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C. 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 tobacco state senators; all but one was a Republican.

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

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