US shelves its plan to sharply cut nicotine in cigarettes

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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, writes Drew Armstrong for Bloomberg.

The Department of Health and Human Services has dropped a proposal unveiled two years ago to cut the nicotine in cigarettes to non-addictive levels, according to a regulatory document published on Wednesday 20 November 2019.

Abandoning the plan, which almost certainly would have meant a sharp reduction in tobacco sales, would be a major victory for the tobacco industry. Meanwhile, public debate is focused on the potential for e-cigarettes to create a new generation of nicotine addicts.

Shares of Marlboro cigarette maker Altria Group Inc. climbed 3.2% on Wednesday. Philip Morris International Inc shares were flat, according to the Bloomberg article published in the Los Angeles Times.

In a notice posted on a government website this year as part of the Food and Drug Administration’s near-term regulatory goals, the agency said 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 last Wednesday as part of a semi-annual review, according to Bloomberg.

FDA action

FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum said the removal of the plans “does not mean the agency does not consider them a priority or will not continue to work on their development.”

The FDA “has focused on regulations that reflect its most immediate priorities,” Felberbaum said in an email. It “continues to gather evidence and data on an ongoing basis regarding all tobacco products.”

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 United States die each year from tobacco-related causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the move was hailed at the time as a potentially monumental public-health decision, Bloomberg reported.

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.

Curbs on hold

This year, government data have shown a surge in use of e-cigarettes by teens, and thousands of Americans have suffered serious lung injuries after vaping, according to Bloomberg.

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

US shelves its plan to sharply cut nicotine in cigarettes

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