Other View: Biden's move to make cigarettes less addictive is the right fight to have
Virtually no smoker today is unaware of the health risks — they’ve been widely known to the public for generations — but the addictive nature of cigarettes keeps them puffing.
The Biden administration last week launched a broadside against Big Tobacco in an effort to break its hold over millions of Americans. The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday announced it will seek a rule forcing dramatic reduction in the amount of nicotine in cigarettes, to render them less addictive and make it easier for smokers to quit.
It won’t be easy to implement — cigarette manufacturers will view it as an existential fight, and their political allies will join them. But with some 1,300 Americans a day dying from tobacco-related causes, it’s a fight worth having.
Close to a half-million Americans die annually from the effects of smoking (or second-hand smoke), making it the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. Virtually no smoker today is unaware of the health risks — they’ve been widely known to the public for generations — but the addictive nature of cigarettes keeps them puffing. The addiction comes primarily from nicotine, a naturally occurring substance in tobacco that isn’t dangerous in itself, but which creates a craving that keeps smokers hooked and vulnerable to the hundreds of known hazardous chemicals in each cigarette.
The FDA announcement is the beginning of what will almost certainly be a yearslong effort to force the cigarette companies to reduce nicotine in cigarettes to “minimally addictive or non-addictive levels,” as the agency put it in a posted statement. The stated goal is to reduce “the likelihood that future generations of young people become addicted to cigarettes and help more currently addicted smokers to quit.”
It’s long been clear that nicotine is no mere byproduct in cigarettes, but a potent tool the tobacco companies use to hook their customers young and keep them for life. Indeed, the industry has acknowledged in internal documents and various legal settlements over the years that it intentionally manipulated nicotine content to make quitting more difficult.
Nonetheless, the industry this week is already trying out its arguments against the FDA’s nicotine-reduction proposal. Among those arguments, The New York Times reports, is that lower-nicotine cigarettes could actually prompt people to smoke more in order to get the same level of nicotine. But research has found that, in fact, dramatically cutting back nicotine levels in cigarettes has the opposite effect, ultimately blunting the craving and causing people to smoke less.
Others warn that black markets will arise for high-nicotine cigarettes. That’s unlikely, since there are legal, cheaper ways to get a nicotine fix, including gums, patches and vaping (which comes with its own potential health issues, but is certainly safer than smoking).
The ultimate argument in favor of the FDA’s move is simple: Cigarettes are both addictive and deadly. If they can’t be made less deadly — and decades of fruitless efforts by the industry itself indicate they can’t — then they can be, and should be, made less addictive.
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