The FDA has a vision for the cigarettes of the future: They'll contain so little nicotine they'll be non-addictive, or close to it. The Wall Street Journal reports the Biden administration on Tuesday unveiled a plan that would put that ball in motion by mandating that nicotine levels in all cigarettes sold in the US be sharply reduced in hopes of further driving down America's smoking rate, which stood at 12.5% of adults in 2020. The biggest US cigarette makers—who shared in a $95 billion industry—have already said they'll fight the move, which they warn could be illegal. The New York Times reports the details were thin, but a notice published online said the proposed rule would come in May 2023, at which point the public comment period would begin.
- The makers. One of Altria Group and Reynolds American's main arguments is that it's better to drive smokers to smoke-free products: The FDA has made clear that nicotine is the addictive part, but not the cancer-causing part; other elements in cigarette smoke are to blame there. Those elements would still be present in low-nicotine smokes; they would just be less addictive.
- The justification. There are about 10 years of research behind the move, with government-funded studies showing that people who smoke cigarettes containing only about 5% of the nicotine that's in a typical cigarette don't smoke as many and don't have the same addiction levels. Smokers who tried them were more likely to quit or turn to things like e-cigarettes. A 2018 FDA study found 13 million smokers would give up cigarettes within five years of nicotine levels being slashed; there are about 31 million smokers currently.
- More research. CBS News cites another FDA-backed study that found if such a policy had gone into effect in 2020, 8 million deaths from tobacco-related illnesses would be averted by 2100. About 480,000 people die from smoking-related causes annually.
- The makers II. The makers argue low-nicotine cigarettes would confuse Americans, who already mistakenly believe in large numbers that nicotine and cancer are connected. They also argue such a move could fuel a black market or send smokers across the Canadian and Mexican borders in search of smokes. They also argue it would be an onerous and lengthy process to develop these cigarettes and that making them at scale might not be realistic.
- The context. The Journal notes it would be the biggest move on smoking the US government has taken "since a landmark legal settlement in 1998" that, among other things, put an end to things like billboard advertising and free samples. The Times reports the move "would put the United States at the forefront of global antismoking efforts." New Zealand is the only other country pursuing the same thing.
- The uphill battle. As the Times puts it, "The headwinds are fierce ... The obstacles to such a plan ... are immense and could take years to overcome." It also points out that experts have warned that should those obstacles be overcome, the introduction of the change would throw tens of millions of people into nicotine withdrawal.
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