President Obama Signs Anti-Smoking Law

FDA has newfound authority to regulate tobacco.

June 22, 2009, 12:26 PM

June 22, 2009— -- President Obama knows all too well how difficult it is to quit smoking, and today he addressed his struggle to kick the habit just before signing a law he hopes will help other people put out their cigarettes too.

"Each day, 1,000 young people under the age of 18 become new, regular, daily smokers, and almost 90 percent of all smokers began at or before their 18th birthday," Obama said today. "I know. I was one of these teenagers. And so I know how difficult it can be to break this habit when it's been with you for a long time."

The new tobacco law gives the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco in the same way the government regulates breakfast cereals and pharmaceuticals.

"This legislation is a victory for bipartisanship, and it was passed overwhelmingly in both houses of Congress," Obama said today. "It's a victory for health care reform, as it will reduce some of the billions we spend on tobacco-related health care costs in this country."

Watch ABC News Primetime: Questions for the President -- Prescription for America onWednesday, June 24 at 10 p ET.

Public health organizations and many lawmakers, several of whom joined Obama today for the signing, have been fighting for regulation for nearly a decade in hopes of helping an estimated 45 million adult smokers in the United States to kick their habit.

The law means the government will have the power to decide how cigarettes are advertised and monitor how they're promoted to young people. It means cigarette makers will be required to include new, larger warning graphics with more health information on their products and will be prohibited from using words like "light" and "low tar" in their marketing.

While the law does not have the power to ban cigarettes and nicotine outright, it does allow the FDA to reduce nicotine levels and harmful chemicals in tobacco products.

"Forty-five years after the first U.S. surgeon general's report linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer, the most deadly product sold in America will no longer be the least-regulated product sold in America," said Matthew Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in a statement earlier this month when Congress passed the bill.

Within the year, a rule will also be reinstated that prohibits outdoor tobacco ads within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, and bans tobacco brands from sponsoring sports and entertainment events, according to the law.

At the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, CEO John R. Seffrin said the changes "will finally put an end to Big Tobacco's despicable marketing practices that are designed to addict children to its deadly products."

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also pinned high hopes on the effort.

"This legislation is a key part of our plans to cut health care costs and reduce the number of Americans who smoke," Sebelius said in a June 11 statement.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 440,000 people die prematurely from smoking each year, with an estimated 49,000 of those deaths due to secondhand smoke exposure.

"This legislation provides a tremendous opportunity to finally hold tobacco companies accountable and restrict efforts to addict more children and adults," American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown said in a June 11 statement. "It has been a long and challenging process to move the bill through Congress but the determination of many concerned parents and supporters has never wavered."

Federal Tobacco Law Signals Changing Times

Twenty years ago, the Senate passed a measure -- by just one vote -- that banned smoking on airplanes. Today even tobacco-producing states have smoking bans in bars and restaurants.

But giving the FDA power to regulate tobacco is a huge move that's been in the works for a long time. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled the FDA could not regulate tobacco according to current law, and many lawmakers and anti-smoking groups have been trying to change the law since.

"Tobacco products are unlike any other products on the market in that they are unusually lethal, but yet not highly regulated," FDA Commissioner Margaret "Peggy" Hamburg told a Senate panel last month as lawmakers considered her nomination for the job.

"We have tried for 10 years and we have failed," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said in a speech on the Senate floor earlier this month. "Think what kind of a difference we could have made. How many lives we would have saved if we passed this 10 years ago."

The measure cleared its final hurdles earlier this month on Capitol Hill when the House and the Senate finally passed the bill and sent it to the president to sign.

Obama quickly expressed his support for the measure -- marking a departure from President Bush, who had suggested he would veto legislation that gave the FDA authority over tobacco.

To fund the regulatory effort, the FDA will collect user fees from the tobacco industry.

Not surprisingly, much of the tobacco industry opposed the bill, but there were some major exceptions to that rule. The giant Altria, parent company of Philip Morris, took an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach and supported the measure, although some complained the company contributed to a watering down of the bill.

Altria called the measure "not perfect" in a June 11 statement after the Senate voted on the measure.

"We have expressed First Amendment reservations about certain provisions, including those that could restrict a manufacturer's ability to communicate truthful information to adult consumers about tobacco products," the statement said. "We also believe that the resolution of certain issues would best be handled by rulemaking processes that involve sound scientific data and public participation."

Still, the company added, "On balance, however, the legislation is an important step forward to achieve the goal we share with others to provide federal regulation of tobacco products."

The tobacco industry has already been readying itself for a tougher U.S. regulatory environment by expanding its overseas marketing and developing new smokeless products.

ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf, Dean Norland and Jake Tapper contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events