The Senate took a step Tuesday toward giving the US government some controls over the tobacco industry, bolstering the chances that a long-sought goal of anti-smoking advocates will finally be realized.
The 84-11 Senate vote to consider the bill came a month after the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a similar measure giving the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Sixty votes were needed to advance the legislation, and the success in reaching that threshold increase the likelihood that the Senate will move to a final vote by the end of the week. If the House concurs with the Senate measure, it would go to President Barack Obama, who is ready to sign it into law.
The Senate vote came on a day when Obama is to meet Senate Democratic leaders on courses they may take to bring down the runaway costs of health care.
Supporters of the FDA legislation, such as the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association, say controls over tobacco products would be a good place to start: they say tobacco use kills more than 400,000 Americans every year, resulting in $96 billion in health care costs.
Under the measure, the FDA could restrict tobacco marketing, specifically to young people; order changes to the ingredients in tobacco products; and require more prominent health warnings. It would ban remaining tobacco-brand sponsorships of sports and entertainment events and restrict vending machines to adult-only facilities. It would bar the use of "reduced harm" descriptions such as "light," "mild" or "low." It would impose a fee on cigarette manufacturers to pay for FDA regulation.
The FDA would not have the authority to ban cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Anti-smoking lawmakers have been trying for years to give the FDA regulatory powers, only to be blocked by tobacco-state colleagues, opposition from the tobacco industry and, during the administration of President George W. Bush, veto threats.
The need for congressional action became more pressing after a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court in 2000 rejecting FDA's claim that it had authority to regulate tobacco products under current law.
"It is now essential for Congress to act," Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Democrat, said soon after that decision. "We cannot in good conscience allow the federal agency most responsible for protecting the public health to remain powerless to deal with the enormous risks of tobacco." Kennedy is the chief sponsor of the Senate bill.
Marlboro maker Philip Morris USA, the largest U.S tobacco company, voiced support for the House-passed bill, saying it endorsed "tough but reasonable federal regulation."
But Philip Morris's main rivals have argued that the legislation, with its new restrictions on marketing and advertising, would essentially lock in Philip Morris' share of the market.
Opponents from tobacco-growing states have expressed concerns about job losses in their states and contended that the FDA has a poor track record in guaranteeing food safety and shouldn't be given responsibility to oversee tobacco products.