UPDATE 3-US near tighter rein on tobacco after Senate vote
* FDA tobacco legislation passes 79-17
* Bill could go to Obama soon, top House Democrat says
* Health groups cheer vote, industry divided (Adds reaction, details of bill)
By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, June 11 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Thursday backed a historic plan giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sweeping power over cigarettes and other tobacco products, allowing the agency to curb advertisements, require stronger package warnings and inspect manufacturers.
Supporters, backed by hundreds of health advocacy groups, cheered the bill's passage as a way to rein in cigarette makers and reduce smoking, especially among teenagers and children.
"The tobacco companies' days of peddling one of the most deadly products in the world have finally come to an end," Democratic Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin said. "Now, we've given the FDA the tools necessary to protect millions of children and families from deadly tobacco-related diseases."
Under the measure, which passed in a bipartisan 79-17 vote, the FDA would also collect millions of dollars in fees from cigarette makers, which must register with the agency and provide a list all the products they make.
A similar measure has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said earlier on Thursday she wanted to look closely at the Senate's bill. "But from what I have seen so far, I believe it will be possible for us to accept their bill and send it right on to the president," she said.
President Barack Obama, who has discussed his own struggles to quit smoking, said he will sign the bill into law, saying "it will make history by giving the scientists and medical experts at the FDA the power to take sensible steps that will reduce tobacco's harmful effects and prevent tobacco companies from marketing their products to children."
TOBACCO COMPANIES DIVIDED ON BILL
The American Cancer Society, the American Medical Association and other advocacy groups urged quick final passage.
Tobacco companies, which suffered a blow last month when an appeals court agreed that the industry lied to hide the dangers of smoking, are divided over the likely new regulations.
Altria Group Inc's (MO.N) Philip Morris unit, the nation's largest cigarette maker, supports "tough but reasonable federal regulation of tobacco products," it said in a statement.
But others, such as Reynolds American Inc's (RAI.N) R.J. Reynolds Tobacco unit and Lorillard Inc's (LO.N) Lorillard Tobacco Co, say new records and fees will be a burden.
Reynolds spokeswoman Maura Payne said the company would comply with the regulations when they become law, but that "a lot of the details are yet to be worked out."
The bill explicitly bans flavored tobacco products, except for menthol. Banning menthol could have especially hurt Lorillard, the top menthol cigarette maker. The bill does call for a report on the impact of menthol cigarette use, especially among blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.
This is not the first time the tobacco companies have faced tighter controls. Television and radio cigarette ads have been banned for decades, and package warnings have been around just as long. Various court settlements over the years have also called for marketing restrictions.
Under the Senate plan, advertising curbs would include print media with large youth audiences. It also calls for restricted vending machine sales, among other steps.
NEW CHALLENGE FOR FDA
The bill's opponents said the FDA, which has been dogged by various tainted food and drug safety scandals in recent years, is not up to the task of regulating yet another industry.
Some also said money would be better spent on programs to help people stop smoking rather than simply regulating a product that is known to cause death and serious illnesses. Tobacco use causes more than 400,000 deaths in the United States a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We should focus FDA resources on protecting the public health, not burdening it with an impossible assignment," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a tobacco state.
But the Senate health committee's leading Republican -- Sen. Mike Enzi, who initially opposed the bill -- voted in favor of the measure despite concerns that include how Congress will fund the FDA tobacco center long-term.
"This bill is the only bill that will seriously keep kids from smoking," he said. "We know from past experience that tobacco companies are not inclined to follow the law." (Reporting by Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Phil Berlowitz, Leslie Gevirtz, Gary Hill)
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