In the US, tobacco kills more than 480,000 people a year. It costs society almost $300 billion annually in medical costs and lost productivity.
The US Food and Drug Administration hopes to make smoking nonaddictive, according to a new regulatory plan announced Friday.
As part of a series of new regulatory efforts to try to limit the harmful effects of tobacco, the agency plans to try to cut nicotine levels in cigarettes significantly.
In a press release, the FDA said:
"The FDA plans to begin a public dialogue about lowering nicotine levels in combustible cigarettes to nonaddictive levels through achievable product standards. The agency intends to issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) to seek input on the potential public health benefits and any possible adverse effects of lowering nicotine in cigarettes."
Mostly because of cigarette smoking, tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the US and around the world. Tobacco kills more than 480,000 people a year in the US and costs society almost $300 billion annually in medical costs and lost productivity.
Almost 90% of people who smoke start doing so before they turn 18, and the long-term use that comes with their addiction kills half of those lifelong users.
Nicotine isn't the only cause of the diseases that come from smoking, but it is the chemical that hooks users because of the effects that it has on the brain. It's naturally found in tobacco leaves, though cigarette companies add chemicals that force tobacco to deliver more nicotine when burned.
Researchers have long speculated that cutting nicotine levels could make it far easier for smokers to quit and to avoid getting hooked in the first place. This isn't the first time the FDA has discussed this idea, but moving forward with a plan to limit nicotine would be a major step toward that goal.
There are obstacles to the plan, however, including figuring out to help the people already addicted to nicotine and finding the best ways to prevent people from smoking far more cigarettes to get the psychoactive effects of nicotine they crave. A "safe level" of nicotine would need to be established.
The FDA also announced plans to issue new regulations for products like cigars, pipe tobacco, and e-cigarettes.
It's likely that tobacco companies will fight the effort. Shares of tobacco companies plunged after the FDA announced the proposal.
"The overwhelming amount of death and disease attributable to tobacco is caused by addiction to cigarettes — the only legal consumer product that, when used as intended, will kill half of all long-term users," the FDA's commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, said in a statement.