The bill, matched by identical House legislation, would give the Food and Drug Administration the same authority over cigarettes and other tobacco products that the regulatory agency now has over drugs, food, medical devices and other consumer products.
The bill has broad bipartisan support. It had been scheduled to be considered Wednesday in the Senate Health Committee, but the vote was postponed because of the Senate's all-night debate on the war in Iraq. It was unclear when the vote would occur.
The full Senate also was expected to pass the measure, even though some lawmakers, including Republican members of the committee, view any effort to create a safer cigarette an impossible task.
Smoking now kills more than 400,000 people a year. It accounts for nearly one in five deaths in the United States.
Scientists count some 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke. Of them, more than 40 are known to cause cancer.
The bill would let the FDA regulate the levels of tar, nicotine and any other of those harmful components. Tobacco foes hope the legislation would allow the agency to force changes to the cigarette that, eventually, would make the smoking habit both harder to start and easier to stop.
"That won't produce a, but it could save lives," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
But others who oppose the legislation maintain the government should focus more on getting people to quit or not smoke in the first place.
"It would still be a deadly product," Dr. Michael Siegel, a Boston University School of Public Health professor, said in a recent interview. "They are not going to make it a safe product by taking out particular smoke constituents."
Richmond, Va.-based Philip Morris USA, maker of Marlboro, the nation's top-selling cigarette brand, supports the bill. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and others oppose the legislation, saying its restrictions on advertising would help cement Philip Morris' No. 1 market position.
Separate Senate legislation calls for a 61-cent-a-pack increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes. That money would go to increase funding for children's health insurance.
"These consecutive committee actions beg the question of whether the Senate is trying to have it both ways: sell more cigarettes so the federal government can have billions of dollars more in tax revenue, while at the same time regulating tobacco products to the point no one will use them," said Tommy Payne, a spokesman for Reynolds American Inc., the parent company of R.J. Reynolds.