WASHINGTON — No more "light" cigarettes or candy-flavored smokes. Bigger, scarier warning labels. Fewer ads featuring sexy young smokers.
Historic anti-smoking legislation sped to final congressional passage on Friday — after a bitter fight lasting nearly half a century — and lawmakers and the White House quickly declared it would save the lives of thousands of smokers of all ages. Even more important, they said, the measure could keep countless young people from starting in the first place.
President Barack Obama, admittedly still struggling with his own nicotine habit, saluted passage of the bill, which he will soon sign. He said, "For over a decade, leaders of both parties have fought to prevent tobacco companies from marketing their products to children and provide the public with the information they need, to understand what a dangerous habit this is."
Specifically, the measure for the first time will give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate what goes into tobacco products, demand changes or elimination of toxic substances and block the introduction of new products.
Will it matter as much as supporters say? Smokers lighting up outside Washington offices had mixed reactions.
Government researcher Reginald Little, 47, who said he swiped his first cigarette from his grandfather at age 15, thought regulation was needed "because you don't know exactly what's in it."
But Becky Cook, a 22-year-old program analyst, said that, while she supported limits on ads aimed at children, "I already know it's bad for me, so I don't think knowing how much is really in one cigarette is really going to make a difference."
Yan Meek, 42, a finance analyst from Jacksonville, Fla., who was visiting the nation's capital with her 8-year-old son, Jesse, doesn't smoke and suggested the legislation would lead to "too much government control over personal lives, personal choices."
Lionel Richardson, 26, an electrical engineer visiting from Huger, S.C., is a a non-smoker, too, but called the legislation a good thing. "It's a drug," he said, and "the FDA plays a big part in what drugs are sold." As for restricting advertisements, he said, "They make it sexy so kids think it's the cool thing to do."
Health and consumer groups that endorsed the bill say that, combined with other anti-smoking efforts, it can significantly reduce the 400,000 deaths and $100 billion in health care costs attributed every year to smoking in the United States.
With an estimated 3,500 young people smoking their first cigarette each day, the ban on flavorings alone could have significant health benefits, said Dr. Adam Goldstein, director of the University of North Carolina Tobacco Prevention and Evaluation Program.
In the longer run, aggressive FDA efforts to reduce nicotine content — the bill prohibits an outright ban on nicotine or cigarettes — could "stimulate as dramatic a change in the product as anything we've seen in the last 50 years."
He said it was not inconceivable that adult smokers, now more than 20 percent of the population, could be reduced to less than 5 percent in 20 years.
Other factors that could cut into tobacco use include the sharp rise in prices — Congress earlier this year approved a 62-cents a pack increase in the federal cigarette tax to pay for a children's health program — and measures by the states to ban smoking in public places.
New FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said the agency was ready to "roll up our sleeves" to meet the new obligations. "We really do feel, by being able to regulate tobacco and tobacco products, we can reduce the burden of disease," especially by preventing teen smoking, she said.