Outlining the plans at a White House press conference, President Bill Clinton assailed the "deadly temptations of tobacco and its skilful marketing", to which children were especially vulnerable. Young smokers were a critical health risk: "The evidence is overwhelming and the threat immediate."
Draft proposals for the crackdown have been drawn up by the Food and Drug Administration, following its conclusion that nicotine is an addictive drug which should be regulated. There will now be a 90-day "consultation period" for Congress and the industry to come up with their own plan to reduce smoking among minors.
But failing a satisfactory alternative, Mr Clinton made plain he would act to make the FDA recommendations law, even at the risk of triggering a struggle in the courts and more divisions within the ranks of his fractious Democratic Party.
Even before the envisaged restrictions were made public, the Tobacco Institute, the umbrella group for the companies, said the FDA did not have jurisdiction over tobacco products. Yesterday the first legal shots were fired as advertising industry associations announced a suit in North Carolina, the biggest tobacco state, challenging the plans to restrict cigarette advertising. They were followed by Philip Morris and other big tobacco companies.
The FDA package includes the following points:
8 A ban on all cigarette vending machines, mail-order sales and self- service displays, allowing cigarettes to be sold only over the counter.
8 A proof-of-age requirement to ensure cigarettes are sold only to over- 18s, and a ban on "kiddie packs" containing fewer than 20 cigarettes.
8 Bans on brand-name advertising at sporting events and on outdoor tobacco advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds.
8 Restriction of advertising in magazines with a large teenage readership to black-and-white text only, without pictures.
8 A shift in legal responsibility for under-age sales to the makers, distributors and retailers, instead of the buyer and the salesperson.
The thrust of the proposals is not at adults, but at young people hooked in their teens or earlier. Thus Mr Clinton can deny he is seeking "prohibition" of cigarettes. But the tobacco industry says the FDA moves will lead inevitably to that.
Mr Clinton is gambling that the companies and Congress will be jolted into coming up with self-policing measures strong enough to render federal regulations unnecessary. The alternative, a frontal war, would be costly and bloody.
The President had wanted to announce the plans on his visit to North Carolina on Tuesday, but was warned off by advisers fearful of a collapse of already fraying support in the region.
So great too is the risk of more conservative Southern Democrats in Congress switching to the Republicans that the House minority leader, Richard Gephardt, has come out against regulations.
The FDA reckons the new rules, if enforced, could halve under-age smoking. The initial lost revenue for the companies might be $250m (pounds 160m) annually, but after 10 years that could rise to $1.2bn or more as fewer young smokers entered the adult market. The cost in jobs is put at 1,000 a year.