You're never too old to quit smoking, government officials said Tuesday, announcing that Medicare will immediately start covering the cost of counseling for certain beneficiaries who want to quit tobacco.

Medicare's new smoking cessation program "has great potential to save and improve lives for millions of seniors," said Mark McClellan, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (search).

Not every Medicare beneficiary qualifies for the new benefit — only those who have an illness caused by tobacco use or complicated by tobacco use.

Medicare officials said Tuesday they did not have an estimate of how much the new program would cost or how many people would be eligible for it. It covers only counseling sessions, not the cost of nicotine patches (search) and gum or products pitched to help smokers quit. About 300,000 senior citizens die annually from smoking-related illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Medicare operated a pilot program for smoking cessation in seven states between November 2002 and December 2004. The official who oversaw it, Jim Coan, said the government paid about $32 for each counseling session, which usually lasted from three to 10 minutes. The maximum amount of claims that could be submitted per participant was four per year.

Coan did not have cost estimates for the program. He said about 7,500 people participated, far short of the goal that had been set for the program.

The new nationwide benefit covers only those with smoking-related illnesses or complications. In the pilot program, any Medicare beneficiary living in the seven states — Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wyoming — could participate.

Dr. Ronald Sturm, a senior economist with the RAND Institute, a nonprofit research group, said Medicare's decision to limit the annual benefit to two cessation attempts per year — each including a maximum of four counseling sessions — would limit the program's costs.

Still, elderly people who have smoked throughout much of their life aren't typically the best candidates to quit smoking — unless they are facing a life-threatening scenario.

"Will they quit smoking in their last few years? Not likely," Sturm said. "It's not going to change much. It's not going to cost much."

Officials at the American Medical Association applauded the government's move. They said seniors actually have a better chance of successfully quitting smoking than do people in other age categories.

"Studies have shown that seniors who try to quit smoking are 50 percent more likely to succeed than all other age groups, and seniors who quit can reduce their risk of death from heart disease to that of non-smokers within two to three years after quitting," said Dr. Ronald Davis, an AMA trustee.