I had a relaxing morning planned until the FDA announced its proposed regulations extending its authority to more tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and cigars. Predictably most of the press is focusing on the former, but the proposals over cigars are also very interesting. The long PDF detailing the proposal is here. Since you probably don’t want to read that, read this post instead.
First, a little background on how the existing law works with regard to cigarettes. The most important power that the Tobacco Control Act gave the FDA was pre-market review. Before releasing a new cigarette, producers must now get explicit approval from the FDA. This created three classes of products:
1. Products that were already on the market as of February 2007 are grandfathered in and allowed to be sold without review, although the FDA could hypothetically order them off the market.
2. Products introduced between February 2007 and March 2011 are allowed on the market while under provisional review. Producers have had to submit applications, but they are allowed to continue selling while the FDA reviews them.
3. Since March 2011, all new products must receive FDA approval before being sold.
This has resulted in a freeze of the cigarette market since 2011. In the three years since then, only two new cigarettes have been approved for sale. The anti-competitive effect this has had on the cigarette market has been my primary criticism of the FDA’s handling of tobacco. It has been reviewing applications for four years, currently has more than 150 employees working on reviews, has received approximately 4,000 applications, and has managed to rule on only 34 of them. For more detailed information on this, see my coverage in The Atlantic and Reason. (Keep in mind, too, that the Tobacco Control Act was fully backed and negotiated by Phillip Morris. They knew what they were doing.)
It’s also helpful to know what the FDA is looking for in new product applications. The law establishes two routes to approval. One is for completely new products (premarket tobacco applications) and requires extremely burdensome amounts of data; this is basically uncharted territory at this point. The other is “substantial equivalence.” To get approval by this route, a new product must demonstrate that it is substantially equivalent to a predicate product that was already on the market as of February 2007 or has since been approved by the FDA. “Substantially equivalent” is defined to mean having the same characteristics (materials, ingredients, design, composition, heating source, or other features) or raising no new questions of health. (To see why this is a huge obstacle to new producers, see my articles above.)
It’s been known for a long time that the FDA planned to extend its authority beyond cigarettes. The biggest concern is how the agency’s sluggish review process will affect these new products, especially e-cigarettes and cigars. These are both dynamic sectors of the market and applying the same standards that the agency uses for relatively commodified cigarettes is extremely problematic.
Impact on e-cigarettes: As mentioned above, substantial equivalence applications must specify a predicate product by which to compare the new product. That predicate product must have been on the market by February 2007. You can see the problem here. The market for e-cigarettes barely existed then. Thus the review process as it exists now is essentially a death sentence for e-cigarettes. As the agency notes in its proposal today, its hands are tied: “Because this date is written into the statute, we do not believe that we have the authority to amend it with respect to e-cigarettes or other products.”
Because of this, the FDA’s proposal gives e-cigarette companies two years after the date the rule goes into effect to submit a premarket tobacco application (PMTA). What happens after that is anybody’s guess. But unless the law changes, it looks like the substantial equivalence option is off the table for e-cigarettes and the variety of products that remain for sale will be extremely restricted. If any products successfully navigate the PMTA process, they will likely be those with lots of financial backing and perhaps the right connections.
Impact on cigars: The FDA’s proposals regarding cigars are intriguing. The agency offered two options. Option 1 is to treat cigars just like other tobacco products, subjecting them to all the same burdens of review. Option 2 is to carve out an exemption for premium cigars.
The first option, as I’ve been warning for a long time, would be disastrous. Hundreds of new cigars come out every year in distinct blends, shapes, and ages. Forcing them into a review process that has managed to approve only two cigarettes in four years would destroy the market as we know it. It would also require all cigars to be substantially equivalent to those already on the market in 2007, making the sector considerably more boring.
The fact that Option 2 is even being considered shows that the FDA is aware of this. Under this option, exemptions would be made for premium cigars. A cigar would be exempt if it:
(1) Is wrapped in whole tobacco leaf
(2) contains a 100 percent leaf tobacco binder
(3) contains primarily long filler tobacco
(4) is made by combining manually the wrapper, filler, and binder
(5) has no filter, tip, or non-tobacco mouthpiece and is capped by
(6) has a retail price (after any discounts or coupons) of no less than $10 per cigar
(7) does not have a characterizing flavor other than tobacco**
(8) weighs more than 6 pounds per 1000 units.
This is not a perfect definition, but it’s a start. The biggest drawback is that it would create a price floor of $10 per stick and this price would be adjusted (i.e. increased) every two years. It’s still possible to get pretty nice cigars for under $10, especially if one buys them a box at a time, so this would be a substantial imposition on cigar smokers. At this point, however, I’m just glad that the option to exempt premium cigars from the FDA’s pre-market approval process exists at all.
Impact on pipes: Pipe smokers, now few and far between, did not put a substantial lobbying effort into influencing the FDA’s new regulations. As a result, pipes get very little discussion in the proposal. However pipe tobacco will be subject to the full authority of the FDA and, if I am reading it correctly, pipes themselves would be subject to pre-market review as well. That seems potentially problematic for unique, handmade briar and meerschaum pipes. Pipe smokers, stock up now or prepare to order from overseas!
What’s next: There are seventy-five days to comment on the proposed regulations. The biggest fight will be over e-cigarettes, which are the hottest topic in the press. In my view it’s a mistake for the FDA to wade into this until it gets its review process under control or can provide a workable alternative to the substantial equivalence path. The upside is that it will take at least two years before it takes enforcement action, which will allow more studies on e-cigarette’s effectiveness as a harm reduction tool to be conducted.
(Note also that the law requires the FDA to examine health impacts on the population level, not on the individual user, so it could order e-cigarettes off the market even though they are unambiguously safer than cigarettes. Remember too that the head of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, Mitch Zeller, came directly to the job from consulting for GlaxoSmithKline, which makes nicotine replacement therapies that compete directly with e-cigs. Might pharmaceutical companies use the new restrictive review process to develop nicotine vapor devices of their own? I would not be at all surprised.)
Cigars have been almost completely off the radar of press and anti-smoking groups, but expect that to change as the debate over exempting them unfolds. Cigar smokers will have to continue keeping the pressure on lawmakers and the FDA to not destroy the industry. It will be important to show that premium cigars are primarily enjoyed by adults and have different health effects than cigarettes for the typical user. (For a summary of the latter, see here.)
Regardless of which option the FDA takes, I expect black market sales of cigars to increase. If it takes Option 1, the variety of cigars available in the United States will suffer greatly. If it takes Option 2, the price will rise to $10 a stogie.* Cuban cigars are pretty alluring already! If you enjoy the company of your local tobacconist, savor the next few years you have together. Their store may not be around much longer.
* Update to add that cigars could escape the price floor by winning FDA approval, but given the agency’s record so far I would not expect many to achieve that. Cigars that were on the market before 2007 could remain available at a lower price too.
** Additional note: I’ve asked the FDA several times whether ageing tobacco in cedar wood, a traditional practice for many cigars, would run afoul of the rule against characterizing flavors. They have not been willing to clarify this.