US drops plan to cut nicotine levels in traditional cigarettes

Bloomberg New York | Updated on November 21, 2019


US regulators are hitting the brakes on plans to force tobacco companies to drastically reduce addictive nicotine in cigarettes, retreating on an ambitious public-health initiative that comes amid increasing worry about nicotine use among young people.

The Department of Health and Human Services has dropped a proposal unveiled two years ago to cut the level of nicotine in cigarettes to non-addictive levels, according to a regulatory document published on Wednesday.

Sharp reduction in tobacco sales

Abandoning the plan, which almost certainly would have meant a sharp reduction in tobacco sales, would be a major victory for the tobacco industry. The move also comes at a time when public debate is focused on the potential for e-cigarettes to create a new generation of nicotine addicts. Representatives for the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In a notice posted on a government website earlier this year as part of the Food and Drug Administrations near-term regulatory goals, the agency said that the policy would have significant public health benefits for youth, young adults, and adults, as well as potentially vast economic benefits. That goal, once included as part of the unified agenda of regulations the government is working on, is no longer listed on the website, which was updated Wednesday as part of a semi-annual review.

In 2017, then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he wanted to reduce nicotine levels in cigarettes and other burnt tobacco to near-zero. Almost half a million people in the US die each year from tobacco-related causes, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and the move was hailed at the time as a potentially monumental public-health decision.

It also shocked Wall Street, sending stocks of tobacco giants including Altria Group Inc. plunging as investors reconsidered whether people would bother smoking a cigarette without the addictive chemical. The move was paired with a decision -- later reversed -- to give e-cigarette makers extra time to keep their products on the market without regulation.

Gottlieb left the FDA before the nicotine policy could be seen through. Altria later bought a $12.8 billion stake in e-cigarette market leader Juul Labs Inc., a hedge against declining smoking rates.

e-cigarette industry

The update to the US regulatory agenda was published on the same morning that a Senate panel was considering the nomination of Texas oncologist Stephen Hahn to be the new head of the FDA. At that hearing, Hahn was peppered with questions about the agency’s approach to the e-cigarette industry. This year, government data has shown a surge in use of e-cigarettes by teens, and thousands of Americans have suffered serious lung injuries after vaping.

The Trump administration had vowed tough curbs on flavoured vaping products in September. Since then, however, the president has signalled any effort to clear the market of flavoured products that appeal to young people is on hold.

The FDAs oversight of the tobacco industry was the product of a pitched political battle that began in the 1990s and culminated in a 2009 law giving the agency oversight of cigarettes and other smokeless products.

Recently, some administration officials have questioned the FDA’s role in regulating tobacco. Joe Grogan, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, earlier this month called the FDA’s regulation of tobacco a huge waste of time and said the agency should focus on pharmaceuticals.

Published on November 21, 2019

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