The US Food and Drug Administration has announced unprecedented plans to limit the amount of nicotine in cigarettes to less addictive levels, according to the LA Times.

It’s the first time such a plan has been proposed in the US, and follows a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that suggests such a move would help an additional 5 million Americans quit smoking within a year, bringing smoking rates from the current level of 15 percent down to 1.4 percent. The move could save 8 million lives by the end of the century, according to the study, which was carried out by scientists from the FDA and scientists from Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.

FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb described “one possible policy scenario” that would limit nicotine in cigarettes to just 0.4 milligrams, 97 percent lower than levels found in the average cigarette today. The FDA announcement is an “advance notice of proposed rule making,” but it could ultimately lead to the first ever FDA move to regulate what can be included in cigarettes.

According to former Representative Henry A. Waxman:

“If this could be implemented, it could be a tremendous boon for public health. It is clear nicotine is what keeps people smoking. It’s a drug that is delivered when cigarettes are inhaled and the reason why so many people find it impossible or difficult to give them up.”

Gottlieb is calling for public comments on what would be an appropriate nicotine level, and whether such a policy should take effect gradually.

“It’s critical that our policies reflect the latest science and is informed by the input we receive,” he said.

Anti-smoking campaigners have already praised the move. President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Matthew L. Myers, called the proposal “extraordinary,” but noted that it would need to apply to other tobacco products to achieve the desired effect.

The FDA’s notice also acknowledged this concern, saying “If a standard were to apply to cigarettes only, it could be substantially less effective.”

A 90-day period for public comments will begin in June. Given the scope of the measure, a long process is expected before such policies go into effect.

Gottlieb noted:

“We see a historic opportunity here to potentially more rapidly migrate cigarette users into products that are modified-risk,” and said “the jury’s still out” on whether electronic cigarettes qualify as lowered risk.

Even tobacco industry spokespeople expressed cautious optimism. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. executive vice president of research and development, James Figlar, said the company would work with the FDA on “a regulatory framework that is based on tobacco harm reduction and recognizes the continuum of risk.”

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