Taking the Addiction Out of Smoking

A lightning bolt struck the tobacco world last Friday when the Food and Drug Administration announced a plan aimed at reducing the nicotine in cigarettes to a nonaddictive level. Within an hour, the value of global tobacco stocks plummeted — and for good reason.

The new F.D.A. chief, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, didn’t mince words in making the announcement. He noted that tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, resulting in nearly half a million annual fatalities. And he pointed out that the cigarette is the only consumer product that kills when used as directed — half of its long-term users, in fact — and that nicotine is the root cause of cigarette addiction.

Reducing nicotine in cigarettes so that they are “minimally or nonaddictive,” he asserted, “is a cornerstone of our new and more comprehensive approach to effective tobacco regulation.”

This is exceptionally good news for tobacco control, and for human health. A legal cap on the nicotine in cigarettes could be one of the most important interventions in human health history. The point is not that nicotine itself causes cancer (it’s the other chemical compounds in the smoke), but rather that by rewiring the brain, nicotine acts as the driver to keep smokers smoking. Nearly everyone who smokes long-term is addicted.

Cigarettes with nonaddictive nicotine levels would be radically different from what used to be known as “low tar” or “light” cigarettes, marketing gimmicks now barred by law. Those cigarettes were advertised as delivering less nicotine and tar into the lungs, even though there was no actual reduction.

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