The new initiative was launched as part of what is called the administration’s “unified agenda.” Published twice a year, it is a set of planned federal regulatory actions.
The rule states that the effort to reduce nicotine in tobacco products would reduce people’s addiction to smoking and give people a better chance of quitting smoking. Reducing the amount of nicotine in these products would also likely prevent people from starting to smoke.
“Nicotine is highly addictive,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf said in the statement. “Lowering nicotine levels to minimally addictive or non-addictive levels would reduce the likelihood of future generations of young people becoming addicted to cigarettes and would further help currently addicted smokers to quit.”
“If we could stop them from being addicted in the first place, that would be great, and it has the potential to really produce a dramatic shift in tobacco use,” Robertson said.
The number of smokers has dropped significantly over the past 15 years, but in 2020, about 12.5% of American adults, or 30.8 million people, still smoked cigarettes. More than 16 million are living with a smoking-related illness according to the CDC.
“This is an important step forward for public health,” said Erika Sward, assistant vice president of national advocacy for the American Lung Association.
Even with low nicotine products, not all smoking-related illnesses would go away. Low nicotine cigarettes still contain harmful products that can cause disease.
“Much of the damage comes from inhaling the burnt smoke. The burnt smoke is still present in low-nicotine cigarettes,” Robertson said. “Because they’re low in nicotine, that doesn’t mean they’re low in anything else.”
Thus, it would still take a public health effort to get people to quit, Robertson said. Reducing the nicotine content could certainly help with this.
The regulations will not happen overnight, experts say, and there is no guarantee that they will be enacted.
Then the FDA would have to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking by May 2023 and there would be time for public comment. This process could take at least a year. Then it’s “highly likely”, experts say, that tobacco companies would then take legal action to stop the rule from going into effect.
Myers and other tobacco experts said they hope the FDA and Biden administration act quickly on the initiative.
“We’ve seen how slowly things move in many areas with tobacco, and many barriers to action can arise,” Myers said. “We just have to commit to making sure it gets done.”