FDA Weighing Rule to Require Less Nicotine in Cigarettes

If enacted, the policy wouldn’t take effect for several years. 

June 13, 2022

Cigarettes and Nicotine Gum

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—The Biden Administration reportedly plans to release a policy that would require tobacco companies to reduce the nicotine in all cigarettes sold in the U.S. to minimally or nonaddictive levels, reports the Wall Street Journal. The administration is expected to announce the policy as early as this week, and it wouldn’t take effect for several years as the plan works its way through the rulemaking process.

Reducing nicotine has been a topic of discuss within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since the 1990s. In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act authorized the FDA to mandate such a change—with the stipulation that the policy be based on scientific evidence, a caveat that slowed the process for years, says the Journal. The FDA says that reducing nicotine levels would prevent future generations from being addicted to the substance and encourage current users to quit.

Cigarette manufacturers can reduce nicotine by altering the blend of tobacco leaves or use different types of paper or filters. Nicotine can also be stripped from the leaf in the manufacturing process, and the Journal reports that one company uses genetic engineering to grow tobacco with 95% less nicotine than a typical tobacco plant.

Research funded by the FDA and National Institutes of Health shows that when nicotine in cigarettes was reduced, smokers were more likely to quit or seek their nicotine fix from less harmful alternatives such as e-cigarettes or gum. Cigarette companies have rejected this research, saying that forced reduction of nicotine would cause people to smoke more, not less, and would expand the illicit market for cigarettes.

The FDA recently released two proposed tobacco product standards: One bans menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes, and the second bans all characterizing flavors, including menthol, in cigars.

The menthol market accounts for roughly 34% of cigarette sales, and flavored cigars account for 51% of cigar sales. Given the existing market and current user base, NACS believes a ban on these products will push sales to the illicit market, which undermines the efforts of responsible retailers and poses a greater risk to communities. The rulemaking process includes a comment period in which the agency will consider input from the public before finalizing the rule.

“History has proven that prohibition of a legal product that has an established user base doesn’t work and has negative consequences for our communities,” stated Anna Blom, NACS director of government relations. “Unfortunately, many current users of these products will seek out illicit sources who don’t check IDs and who sell counterfeit products smuggled into the country.”

NACS will be filing comments on behalf of the industry, but the FDA also needs to hear from individual retailers. Here’s how to help stop the FDA menthol ban.