Editor's note: This story has been updated.
June 21, 2022 – The White House today announced an effort to require tobacco companies to reduce nicotine levels in cigarettes sold in the U.S.
The Department of Health and Human Services posted a notice that details plans for a new rule to create a maximum allowed amount of nicotine in certain tobacco products. The FDA would take the action, the notice said, “to reduce addictiveness to certain tobacco products, thus giving addicted users a greater ability to quit.” The product standard would also help nonsmokers interested in trying tobacco, mainly youth, from starting to smoke and become regulars.
"Lowering nicotine levels to minimally addictive or non-addictive levels would decrease the likelihood that future generations of young people become addicted to cigarettes and help more currently addicted smokers to quit,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, MD, said in a statement.
The FDA, in charge of regulating cigarettes, issues a proposed rule when changes are discussed.. That would be followed by a period for public comments before a final rule could be issued.
The proposed rule was first reported by The Washington Post.
The FDA in 2018 published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that estimated that a potential limit on nicotine in cigarettes could, by the year 2100, prevent more than 33 million people from becoming regular smokers, and prevent the deaths of more than 8 million people from tobacco-related illnesses.
The action to reduce nicotine levels would fit in with President Joe Biden’s goal of reducing cancer death rates by half over 25 years. Each year, according to the American Cancer Society, about 480,000 deaths (about 1 in 5) are related to smoking. Currently, about 34 million American adults still smoke cigarettes.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called the proposed rule a “truly game-changing proposal.”
“There is no other single action our country can take that would prevent more young people from becoming addicted to tobacco or have a greater impact on reducing deaths from cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease,” Myers said in a statement.
However, he said, “these gains will only be realized if the administration and the FDA demonstrate a full-throated commitment to finalizing and implementing this proposal.”
The FDA proposed the nicotine reduction strategy in talks with the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services early in 2021, according to the Post.
Earlier this year, the FDA issued a proposed rule to ban menthol flavoring in cigarettes. The agency is accepting public comments though July 5.
The action of reducing nicotine levels would likely take years to complete, Mitch Zeller, JD, recently retired director of the FDA Center for Tobacco Products, told the Post.
In 2018, the FDA issued a proposed ruling to set a standard for maximum nicotine levels in cigarettes.
Advocates say the action of slashing nicotine, the active – and addictive – ingredient in cigarettes, would save millions of lives for generations to come. Opponents liken it to the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s and predict the action will fail.
Others say that if limits are put on nicotine levels, adults should have greater access to noncombustible alternatives.