FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb says, “…we’re taking a pivotal step today that could ultimately bring us closer to our vision of a world where combustible cigarettes would no longer create or sustain addiction – making it harder for future generations to become addicted in the first place and allowing more currently addicted smokers to quit or switch to potentially less harmful products.”
Yes, the FDA wants to slash nicotine levels in cigarettes. If you vape, you know that nicotine isn’t a health problem, but it is the leading component that makes tobacco smoking addictive. The thinking is that by reducing the level of nicotine in cigarettes, smokers will smoke fewer cigarettes and thus have a slightly hazard-reduced smoking experience.
The stated objective of nicotine reduction is to wean current smokers from their addiction and prevent future smokers from becoming addicted to nicotine in the first place. This is at a time when the number of new smokers is at its lowest level in history, and the prospect of a future where nobody is addicted to tobacco is a possibility.
If you have smoked or do smoke, and if you vape with nicotine, you probably already see a potential problem: Smokers are used to a certain level of nicotine, and if they have to smoke more cigarettes to achieve that level, they will. Studies have found that to be the case, and smoking more cigarettes raises the danger level inherent in inhaling burning tobacco smoke. The FDA seems to be more concerned with preventing new smokers from becoming addicted than it does about the health of current smokers. Or does it?
Is This an Achievable Goal?
The problem is, although the FDA states that it wants to reduce the level of nicotine in cigarettes, it doesn’t appear to have a clue as to what level it should set. It is asking for feedback on levels of 0.3, 0.4, and 0.5 mg of nicotine per gram of tobacco filler, “as well as other levels of nicotine.” The FDA is also uncertain whether it should set a single level or work toward a lower level using a series of step-downs in nicotine level over time.
That doesn’t sound very decisive. The FDA doesn’t know what level it should set, nor does it have a target date for achieving that level.
Further, the FDA doesn’t know how feasible it will be for the tobacco industry to produce cigarettes with these lower nicotine levels. At this time, only one company in the entire world can produce very low nicotine cigarettes. The FDA doesn’t know if the as-yet-undetermined level of nicotine will be achievable across the industry. The FDA has a goal but isn’t sure how to reach it.
The FDA believes that the tobacco industry can achieve a lower level of nicotine through cross-breeding plants, genetic engineering, and blending different types of tobacco. Since this is exactly what the tobacco industry has done for decades to increase the nicotine level – and hence the addictiveness – of cigarettes, the same techniques should be just as applicable when it comes to reducing nicotine levels.
It is important to keep in mind that low-nicotine cigarettes are no less hazardous to a smoker’s health than high-nicotine cigarettes. Nicotine is not a health issue; it is an addiction issue. Burning tobacco is a health issue.
Also, it’s only a theory that reducing the nicotine level in cigarettes will reduce the amount that smokers use. It is more likely that a reduction in nicotine levels will see many smokers lighting up more often to achieve the level of nicotine they are used to, thereby increasing their health risk significantly.
One has to wonder if the goal of reducing addiction by new smokers is worth endangering the health of current smokers. Is this a reasonable trade-off?
It’s ironic that the FDA, which has consistently opposed “dual use” of tobacco cigarettes and e-cigarettes, is now suggesting dual use as a way for smokers to get their nicotine without having to smoke more reduced-nicotine cigarettes, stating that it will result in reduced harm – a position that the FDA has officially opposed in the past.
22nd Century Group, Inc., claims to be the only manufacturer of very low nicotine cigarettes in the world. In fact, 22nd Century brags of this on its website. (22nd Century exists for one reason alone, providing cigarettes with different levels of nicotine to researchers.)
One has to wonder how much money 22nd Century makes being the exclusive provider of very low nicotine research cigarettes to the FDA. How much does a monopoly charge for a pack of very low or very high nicotine cigarettes? That information is confidential.
I applaud the FDA for finally tackling the issue of nicotine addiction in cigarettes. Scientists have been proposing this move since 1994, and we can all hope that the FDA moves quickly to establish a reduced level and force the tobacco industry to comply.
Imagine a future where nobody is addicted to smoking tobacco.
- FDA Advances Plan to Slash Nicotine in Cigarettes, NPR, March 15, 2018
- Statement From FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., on Pivotal Public Health Step to Dramatically Reduce Smoking Rates by Lowering Nicotine in Combustible Cigarettes to Minimally or Non-Addictive Levels, FDA, March 15, 2018
- Tobacco Product Standard for Nicotine Level of Combusted Cigarettes, FDA, undated draft document, scheduled for publication on March 16, 2018 (99 pages!)
- Public Misperception That Very Low Nicotine Cigarettes Are Less Carcinogenic, National Institutes of Health, Jan. 23, 2018