The FDA wants to regulate nicotine for the first time : NPR

The FDA wants to regulate nicotine for the first time : NPR

The FDA hopes that a new limit on the levels of nicotine in cigarettes will help people quit smoking or avoid the habit altogether.

Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images


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Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images


The FDA hopes that a new limit on the levels of nicotine in cigarettes will help people quit smoking or avoid the habit altogether.

Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration has called cigarettes “the only legal consumer product that, when used as intended, will kill half of all long-term users.”

But the agency has never regulated nicotine, the notoriously addictive ingredient in cigarettes, and has wanted to change that for years. Now, it seems, the time has come.

The FDA is about to set a maximum level of nicotine in cigarettes and some other tobacco products, seeking to make them less addictive and discourage smokers from the habit. Despite a general trend toward smoking cessation, tobacco use remains the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the US.

“Reducing nicotine levels to minimally addictive or non-addictive levels would decrease the likelihood that future generations of youth will become addicted to cigarettes and help more current addicted smokers to quit,” said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, when the agency announced its plan.

In describing the potential benefits, the FDA points out that 480,000 people die each year from diseases attributed to smoking. Overall, he says, “tobacco use costs nearly $300 billion a year in direct health care and lost productivity.”

The proposed new rule would go into effect in May 2023.

Advocates welcome a “historic” move

In an email to NPR, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids applauded what it called “a truly historic proposal.” Combined with the FDA’s recent push to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, the changes would “greatly reduce the appeal of cigarettes, especially to children, and ensure that these products can no longer create or maintain the addiction,” the group said.

For their part, tobacco companies have been working to adapt to changes in regulations and consumer tastes. For example, the tobacco conglomerate Altria (which includes Philip Morris USA) has previously said it agrees with the FDA that addicted smokers need less harmful alternatives to cigarettes.

But rather than quit smoking and nicotine completely, Altria and other tobacco companies want those smokers to become customers of other tobacco products.

A lot of time has passed

The tobacco industry fought for decades to block federal efforts to regulate cigarettes and tobacco.

“Cigarettes had less federal oversight than pet food and makeup,” as NPR’s Fresh Air reported, “in part because of a 2000 Supreme Court decision that ruled the Food and Drug Administration couldn’t regulate the nicotine without the approval of Congress.

But in 2009, Congress finally passed a bill giving the FDA authority over cigarettes and tobacco products. The FDA seemed to be on the cusp of new regulations in 2017 and published a proposed rule in 2018. But that rule died, as the agency abandoned the proposal in 2019.

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