With the vaping industry reeling from a year of crushing government regulation, it came as quite a shock to see that the cigarette industry may be next up in the cross hairs. The Biden Administration is apparently considering requiring tobacco companies to cut the nicotine levels in cigarettes to "nonaddictive or minimally addictive levels."
But that's not all. The Biden Admin has already announced that it will be banning menthol cigarettes entirely as well.
Will these sweeping changes actually move forward or are they just being floated for the purpose of "optics," attempting to balance out the growing perception that small vape businesses and potentially less harmful nicotine delivery products are being targeted by regulation while a product known to kill around 480,000 Americans each year remains unscathed?
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb originally floated both ideas back in 2017 when the FDA announced its "comprehensive regulatory plan to shift [the] trajectory of tobacco-related disease."
"A key piece of the FDA’s approach is demonstrating a greater awareness that nicotine – while highly addictive – is delivered through products that represent a continuum of risk and is most harmful when delivered through smoke particles in combustible cigarettes," the 2017 FDA news release stated.
It's difficult to imagine that many people would be interested in buying cigarettes that have little to no nicotine left it them so slashing the nicotine content would likely result in a massive shift to other nicotine containing products such as electronic cigarettes and that appears to have been the FDA's intention in 2017.
The plan was to take the nicotine levels in cigarettes down low enough such that they were insufficient to create or sustain addiction. That's key because previous studies have shown that simply reducing the nicotine level in cigarettes would be a giant public health disaster leading to what's referred to as "compensatory smoking." That is, people will just smoke more to get enough nicotine, exposing them to increased tar, ash and other chemicals and carcinogens found in cigarettes.
However, the FDA can't eliminate the nicotine in cigarettes altogether. When the Tobacco Control Act passed, Congress gave the FDA the authority to reduce but not eliminate the nicotine in cigarettes. Therefore, for the plan to work, the FDA would have to walk a tightrope, keeping nic levels low enough to be entirely non-addictive in order to avoid compensatory smoking while not eliminating it entirely.
In case you are wondering, reducing the nicotine levels in cigarettes would be accomplished by either the use of genetically modified tobacco strains or while processing the tobacco plant during manufacturing.
After Gottlieb stepped down from the FDA, the plan fizzled but it appears it is again being considered. The concept amounts to a generational plan to create a future in which, if people chose to use nicotine, they will use it in less harmful forms. It's not prohibition, the FDA thinking seems to go, because potentially less harmful nicotine delivery pathways will still be available such as snus, the IQOS and, hopefully, vaping.
While that all may sound good enough on paper, the devil, as they say, is in the details and there’s the potential for some serious unintended consequences.
First, there’s the question of whether the government should have any role in essentially forcing smokers to quit by taking away the nicotine in their cigarettes. According to the CDC, there are 34.1 million adults in the U.S. who currently smoke cigarettes. All cigarette packs contain extensive warnings, letting users and potential users known they are extremely harmful to human health, yet millions of adults still chose to use them. Is it really the government’s place to force adults to switch to a different product the government has deemed “better” for them?
Additionally, if getting people to switch to potentially less harmful alternatives really is the government’s goal, it would certainly be possible to nudge people in that direction without going full totalitarian. For example, prohibiting taxes on less harmful alternatives and raising taxes on cigarettes or providing honest public education messaging and support programs to help people make the switch would both be gentler ways to accomplish the same thing without forcing anyone.
Oddly enough, in the past few years we’ve often seen the government do the opposite, raising taxes on less harmful alternatives, making them more difficult and expensive to get, and releasing incomplete and even inaccurate information demonizing such products.
Second, numerous historical instances have shown that prohibition does not work. Prohibiting the sale of a satisfying cigarette is practically an invitation for the creation of a black market. With “real” cigarettes still available in every other country around the world, it’s guaranteed that enterprising individuals of a criminal persuasion will find ways to bring them across the border into this country where there will certainly be a market for them.
If the plans move forward, expect to see a massive, well funded and aggressive push back from Big Tobacco. The vape industry has been an easy target for politicians because the majority of vape companies are small businesses that don't have the resources to fund lobbyists or all the other myriad tricks big businesses use to influence government, but the same cannot be said for Big Tobacco.
If anyone doubts Big Tobacco's ability to mobilize and attack legislation that threatens their business interests, they need look no further than the recent California flavor ban that also tried to oust menthol cigarettes from the state. Big Tobacco not only responded with lawsuits but also formed a non-profit which gathered over ONE MILLION signatures from Californians in nine short weeks, successfully halting the ban before it even went into effect.
Even if lawsuits don't stop the proposed restrictions on cigarettes, they won't happen overnight. The Wall Street Journal predicts roll out of the changes will take "years" to implement.
Big Tobacco stocks fell on the news, with Altria being the hardest hit with a 6% drop.
Of course, the question remains whether the current administration will leave flavored vape juices untouched if they move forward with such sweeping changes to other tobacco products. Once the Nanny State gets a taste of real power, there's nothing to stop it from also grounding flavored vapes in the name of “protecting people from themselves.”
It will be interesting to watch how this plays out.