The Food and Drug Administration announced Friday plans to cut nicotine in cigarettes to “non-addictive” levels, as part as an ongoing effort to shift smokers toward potentially less-harmful e-cigarettes.
Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, and causes over 480,000 deaths each year, said the FDA in a press release. Cigarette not only causes millions of people around the world to die, but it also creates significant financial costs to societies.
Reuters reports that following FDA’s announcement, shares of the main tobacco companies in the U.S. and U.K. dropped on heavy trading volume. In fact, the companies lost about $26 billion of market value.
FDA announces plan to lower nicotine in cigarettes to ‘non-addictive’ levels
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced the measure on Friday and noted that while nicotine itself is not responsible for all the diseases associated with cigarette use, it is responsible for causing addiction to cigarettes. Other chemical compounds on tobacco and in the smoke created by burning tobacco are directly responsible for causing illness and death, he said.
“The overwhelming amount of death and disease attributable to tobacco is caused by addiction to cigarettes –the only legal consumer product that, when used as intended, will kill half of all long-term users,” said Gottlieb, who is also a cancer survivor. “Unless we change course, 5.6 million young people alive today will die prematurely later in life from tobacco use.”
The FDA doesn’t have the power to reduce nicotine levels to zero or to ban cigarettes altogether. However, Gottlieb explained the federal agency would study regulating nicotine levels with an effort toward the FDA’s potential to render cigarettes addictive or non-addictive.
The agency also expects to begin a public dialogue about lowering nicotine levels in combustible cigarettes to non-addictive levels. The FDA will release an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) to look input on the public health benefits or possible adverse effects of lowering nicotine levels in tobacco.
Gottlieb: ‘e-cigarettes may present benefits that we must consider’
According to the FDA, about 90 percent of adult smokers started smoking before they turned 18 years and almost 2,500 young children smoke their first cigarette every day in the United States. The FDA believes that by lowering levels of the addictive compound in cigarettes, they could decrease the likelihood that future generations become addicted to cigarettes and prevent current smokers from continuing to do so.
“Because nicotine lives at the core of the problem and the solution to the question of addiction, addressing the addictive levels of nicotine in combustible cigarettes must be part of the FDA’s strategy for addressing the devastating addiction crisis that is threatening American families,” said Gottlieb. “Our approach to nicotine must be accompanied by a firm foundation of rules and standards for newly-regulated products.”
Experts believe that regulators in Europe will study similar actions to the FDA’s on nicotine products. However, the measure adds to an ongoing debate among public health advocates about whether e-cigarettes are harmful to people.
Regarding e-cigarettes, Gottlieb noted that while there’s still much research to be done on those products and they risk they may pose to the public, they could also represent benefits that they must consider.
FDA extended deadlines to oversight tobacco products of cigar and e-cigarette companies
The FDA announcement is not final yet, though, as a public debate will begin to discuss how to implement such measures. A senior market analyst at ETX Capital in London, Neil Wilson, told Reuters that it’s still hard to assess what the measure could mean for companies affected, as non-addictive levels of nicotine are likely to translate into a lot few smokers.
Tobacco companies have been preparing for years for a measure like this, and most have invested in e-cigarettes and other alternative tobacco delivery systems, to mitigate the blow from any decline in cigarette sales.
Altria –the tobacco manufacturer of the Marlboro brand of cigarettes- shares closed down 9.5 percent. British American Tobacco shares fell 6.8 percent after Gottlieb’s remarks, marking the biggest one-day loss they’ve had in nine years. The company issued a statement, noting their agreement with FDA’s announcement.
“Our American subsidiary, Reynolds American Inc., and its operating companies are encouraged by FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb’s comments today recognizing tobacco harm reduction policies and the continuum of risk for tobacco products,” said British American Tobacco in its statement.
The FDA also extended the deadline of a 2016 rule that gave the agency oversight over tobacco products. E-cigarette companies had their deadline extended by up to four years, while cigarette companies had theirs extended up to three years.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, warned the extension of e-cigarette deadlines could allow kid-friendly cigars and e-cigarettes “in flavors like gummy bear, cherry crush, and banana smash,” to stay in the market for up to four years without any public health oversight.