The FDA is expected to announce very soon new regulations governing chewing tobacco, cigars, and likely electronic cigarettes. If you’ve followed my writing on this, you know I don’t think this bodes well for the quality side of the tobacco market. The law giving the agency authority over tobacco products was brokered by an alliance of Philip Morris and anti-smoking groups, and the new head of the FDA’s tobacco division, Mitch Zeller, came to the job straight from consulting for GlaxoSmithKline on nicotine replacement therapies. The agency’s record so far has been distinguished much more by its anti-competitive effects than by any actual achievement improving public health.
The Boston Globe recently interviewed Zeller to get some indication of where the agency may be headed. As expected, it appears likely that Zeller will pursue mandating the removal of nearly all nicotine from cigarettes:
1. Create a non-addictive cigarette. We have the authority given to us by Congress to reduce nicotine in cigarettes down to nearly zero,” Zeller said. Since nicotine is the addictive chemical in cigarettes, teens who start smoking products that are almost nicotine-free could, in theory, never get hooked in the first place. Researchers now have access to 9 million cigarettes with varying amounts of nicotine to start testing whether products with lower amounts will lead to less addiction among new smokers. But don’t expect an ultra-low-nicotine product for at least a few years, Zeller added, since the studies are just beginning.
A few notes on this:
1) This would obviously be good news for Zeller’s former client in the pharmaceutical industry. Removal of nicotine from cigarettes would leave smokers craving nicotine and many of them would likely turn to patches, gums, and the like. Zeller indicates in the same interview that the agency should perhaps remove warning labels from nicotine replacement therapies that discourage consumers from using them long-term, noting that using these products for life is healthier than smoking.
Even if this is good policy, Zeller’s previous job casts doubt on the FDA’s ability to consider the issue impartially. As many warned at the time of his appointment, his role as lead regulator of tobacco creates a blatant conflict of interest at the agency.
2) Mandated removal of nicotine could be good news for makers of electronic cigarettes, which now include the Big Tobacco companies. But it’s not clear that the FDA will turn a favorable eye to those, either. If the agency’s performance on cigarettes is any indication, e-cigarettes could be caught in a bureaucratic morass that keeps new products off the market with scant scientific justification.
3) Rather than turn to pharmaceuticals or e-cigarettes, at least some smokers will likely switch to cheap, low-quality cigars. Even if the FDA does not initially regulate nicotine levels in cigars, this will provide the impetus to extend the regulation. We’ve seen this before with bans on flavors or changes to tax policy when producers and consumers respond with products that technically qualify as cigars or pipe tobacco. Lawmakers and regulators then attempt to close the “loophole.” Makers of high-quality, traditional cigars would be caught in the crossfire. Whether or not one has any personal interest in cigarettes, if you enjoy an occasional pipe or cigar, then the FDA’s path should have you worried. There may be no way to produce a traditional cigar and comply with the FDA’s demands. This is the road that could lead to the complete destruction of the industry.
For more on how the FDA is getting tobacco regulation wrong, see my articles from the past year:
Who’s killing the electronic cigarette?
How the FDA is keeping new cigarettes off the market
The case against a smoke-free America