The U.S. government is proposing cutting the nicotine level in cigarettes for the first time in its history.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Friday it has directed the agency’s staff to develop new regulations to make cigarettes less addictive. Tobacco stocks fell Friday following the news.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency plans to explore ways to limit the amount of nicotine in cigarettes.
“A renewed focus on nicotine can help us to achieve a world where cigarettes no longer addict future generations of our kids,'' Gottlieb said in a speech to staff in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Along with reducing nicotine, the FDA plans to ease the path of entry for less-harmful nicotine delivery systems, such as e-cigarettes. The agency said it will give e-cigarette makers four more years to comply with FDA oversight of their products, giving them more time on the market without regulation.
"While there's still much research to be done on these products and the risks that they may pose, they may also present benefits that we must consider," Gottlieb said.
E-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is addictive, but they do not contain tar or many of the other substances in traditional cigarettes, which make them deadly. Battery-powered e-cigarettes turn liquid nicotine into an inhalable vapor.
"Nicotine itself is not responsible for the cancer, the lung disease and heart disease that kill hundreds of thousands of Americans each year," Gottlieb said. "It's the other chemical compounds in tobacco and in the smoke created by setting tobacco on fire that directly cause illness and death."
However, Gottlieb said he was concerned that e-cigarette makers are using “kid-appealing flavors” which he said the FDA would consider regulating.
"I have real concerns about kids use of e-cigarettes and I know many others share those concerns, especially for those products marketed with obviously kid-appealing flavors,” he said.
Anti-smoking activists hailed the announcement and said that reducing the level of nicotine in traditional cigarettes could make it easier for people to switch to e-cigarettes or less harmful tobacco products.
However, some activists say the amount of nicotine in cigarettes needs to be reduced dramatically, and say if nicotine is only reduced a small amount it will just encourage smokers to use more cigarettes.
Altria Group, which sells Marlboro and other cigarettes in the United States, said it would comply with all FDA rules, but said in a statement Friday that any new rules should be based on evidence and not lead to unintended consequences.
While the new policies could be bad business for cigarette companies, Altria and other groups, like Philip Morris International, have been spending billions of dollars to make to products that they say have less health risks such as e-cigarettes.
The FDA has had the power to regulate nicotine levels since 2009 but has not yet done so.
The U.S. government says tobacco use causes more than 480,000 deaths annually, and is the leading cause of preventable heart disease.