The Food & Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced a plan to lower nicotine levels in cigarettes as a way of reducing death and disease caused by cigarettes. Nicotine is the drug in cigarettes and other tobacco products that is responsible for causing addiction. Nicotine itself is a very effective drug– it reaches the brain in less than 10 seconds and activates a part of the brain that causes feelings of happiness and relaxation, causing the brain to want to repeat the behavior.
The FDA believes that if nicotine levels in cigarettes can be lowered, cigarettes will be rendered less addicting and more people will either quit or never take up smoking regularly. Tobacco use kills over 480,000 Americans every year and is the number one preventable cause of death in this country, so this may be a welcome change. However, there are plenty of potential consequences that need to be considered.
First, the FDA intends to lower nicotine levels in cigarettes alone- not in smokeless tobacco, cigar products, or in e-cigarettes. Cigar products and smokeless tobacco, for example, are not regulated in the same way as cigarettes and can be very inexpensive and are allowed to come in a wide array of flavors. If the FDA is able to lower the amount of nicotine in cigarettes, it would be forcing people to consume nicotine levels that are lower than what their brains think they need. If people are not able to get the nicotine fix they’re used to from cigarettes, will they turn to other products like cigars or smokeless tobacco instead of quitting?
Naturally, the tobacco industry is not a fan of any sort of regulation of its products. In 2013, the top 6 tobacco companies earned more than Coca-Cola, General Mills, FedEx, AT&T, Google, Starbucks, and McDonald’s combined- and their legal teams are notorious for defending their profits. In fact, tobacco companies have been known to sue entire countries that try to enforce tobacco control measures. Australia , Uruguay, Norway, and Great Britain have faced the wrath of tobacco giant Philip Morris when they wanted to make cigarette packaging less appealing to consumers. It’s not likely the industry will take this new FDA regulation sitting down.
The FDA is intending to welcome public dialogue and input regarding this new project, which may turn the proposal in to something more complex. Only time will tell what will become of the FDA’s plans.