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Senate finally says 'no' to Big Tobacco

The industry's influence staved off major regulations for nearly a half century. Thursday's vote changes that.

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut (second from left) spoke after the Senate passed tobacco-regulation legislation Thursday. From left are: Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, Senator Dodd, Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa.

Susan Walsh/AP

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The Senate today passed legislation Thursday that gives the Food and Drug Administration broad powers to regulate tobacco products, in many respects ending the era of Big Tobacco’s clout on Capitol Hill.

Republicans, many from tobacco states, put up some resistance – forcing the Senate into a second week of debate on the bill and three procedural votes to ensure its final passage.

But the bill passed 79 to 17, with one Democrat joining 16 Republicans in opposition. The Senate now needs to reconcile its bill with the House’s version, which passed 298 to 112 on April 2. President Obama says he will sign the compromise bill into law.

It is a remarkable turnaround from even a decade ago.

Lawmakers say that one of the first things many new members learned when they came to Washington was to avoid crossing tobacco companies.

Tobacco lobbyists have contributed more than $62.1 million to congressional campaigns since 1990, 74 percent to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

“Congress moves slowly, the tobacco industry is powerful, and individual senators have tremendous power to slow and delay and prevent things from happening,” says Paul Billings, vice president of national policy and advocacy for the National Lung Association in Washington.

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