President Barack Obama quickly expressed his support, appearing in the Rose Garden almost immediately after the House gave final approval to the bill giving the Food and Drug Administration control over tobacco production, marketing and sales.
For more than a decade, Obama said, leaders in Congress have been trying to prevent the marketing of cigarettes to children "and provide the public with the information they need to understand what a dangerous habit this is." He said the outcome was "a bill that truly defines change in Washington."
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chief sponsor of the House version, called it "the single most important thing that we can do right now to curb this deadly toll."
More than 400,000 people die every year from tobacco-related diseases, according to government figures. About 45 million U.S. adults are smokers, though the prevalence has fallen since the U.S. surgeon general's warning 45 years ago that tobacco causes lung cancer.
The House, which first passed a similar FDA bill in April, voted 307-97 to endorse the version passed 79-17 by the Senate on Thursday.
The measure puts special emphasis on dissuading some of the 3,500 young people who every day smoke a cigarette for the first time. It prohibits use of candied and flavored cigarettes popular among young people and severely restricts advertisements and promotions targeted toward youth. It bans use of words such as "mild" or "light" that give the impression that the brand is safer. It requires stronger warning labels.
The FDA would also require tobacco companies to reveal the contents of their products and they'd have to seek approval for marketing new products. It gives the FDA power to order changes to ingredients, including tar and nicotine, to protect public health.
Altria Group, parent company of Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest tobacco company, issued a statement Thursday supporting the legislation and saying it approved "tough but reasonable federal regulation of tobacco products" by the FDA. Rival companies have voiced opposition, saying FDA limits on new tobacco products could lock in market shares for Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro cigarettes.
Opposition in the House came from Republicans concerned about government intrusion in private enterprise and tobacco state lawmakers. Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., said people in his state believed "allowing the FDA to regulate tobacco in any capacity would lead to the FDA regulating the family farm."
The greater goal of the legislation is to reduce deaths linked to smoking and shrink the annual $100 billion health care price tag for tobacco-related illnesses.
Smoking is responsible for more than 30 percent of all cancer deaths, said Dr. Douglas Blayney, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The bill, he said, "should have a huge impact on reducing the death and disease brought on by tobacco use."
Obama, who has spoken of his own struggle to quit smoking, praised the bill, saying it "will make history by giving the scientists and medical experts at the FDA the power to take sensible steps."
Lawmakers, led by the ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., have been fighting for more than a decade to impose government controls over cigarettes, only to meet strong resistance from the tobacco industry and others. The Supreme Court in 2000 said the FDA did not have authority to regulate tobacco under current law, and the administration of then-President George W. Bush opposed congressional efforts to rewrite the law.
The industry, said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who guided the bill to passage in the Senate, had long succeeded in excluding itself from federal regulation. "That now changes forever," he said.
"Passage of this historic legislation by both the House and the Senate is a victory for public health over Big Tobacco," said Dr. Nancy Nielsen, president of the American Medical Association.