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Tobacco bill sent to Obama

Nearly 50 years after the surgeon general's report, sweeping new rules are in the offing.

WASHINGTON - By a 307-97 vote, the House yesterday approved a bill passed by the Senate this week that gives the federal government sweeping new powers to regulate tobacco.

President Obama hailed the bipartisan votes in Congress on the bill, which he said "truly defines change in Washington."

He said he looked forward to signing it into law.

"This is the day when Americans can begin to truly kick the habit, with the full force of our laws marshaled to protect consumers, and especially our young people," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D., Calif.), a key sponsor of the House version of the bill.

The House passed a nearly identical version of the bill in April, but leaders needed to ratify the Senate's action and called a vote yesterday.

Among area members of Congress, all voted yes, except Joseph R. Pitts (R., Pa.), who voted no, and John Adler (D., N.J.), who did not vote.

Obama, himself a smoker who has struggled to quit, then congratulated lawmakers in brief remarks in the White House Rose Garden.

"We've known for years, even decades, about the harmful, addictive, and often deadly effects of tobacco products," he said. "Each year, Americans pay nearly $100 billion in added health-care costs due to smoking. Each day, about 1,000 young people under the age of 18 become regular smokers."

He said leaders of both parties had fought for the bill's provisions for more than a decade, battling stiff opposition from the industry.

The bill gives the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate the advertising, marketing, and manufacturing of tobacco products. It comes nearly 50 years after the surgeon general first warned on the health effects of tobacco.

Tobacco is used by one in five Americans, yet it is one of the least-regulated consumer products. Pet food and cosmetics are more heavily controlled.

For smokers, the law will mean confronting graphic warnings of the risks of their habit every time they pick up a pack, and possible changes to the formulations of cigarettes and cigars. The law bans most cigarette flavorings and orders the FDA to study the issue of whether menthol should also be banned, on the theory that the flavorings mask the harsh taste of tobacco and make it easier for first-time smokers to get hooked.

For the $89 billion tobacco industry, it will mean new requirements to disclose the ingredients in cigarettes and other tobacco products, as well as severe limitations on how they are advertised and promoted. The government could also issue new rules on nicotine content, flavorings, and other product features.

The bill stops short of allowing the FDA to prohibit tobacco or to eliminate nicotine, the addictive element.

Congress has been battling for more than a decade over regulating tobacco, coming close several times but faltering in the face of opposition from the tobacco lobby, the White House, or procedural hang-ups. But over the years, changing attitudes toward smoking have helped transform the idea of regulation.