Public health advocates should be jumping for joy at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's announcement that it would explore ways to reduce nicotine levels in conventional cigarettes to non-addictive levels.
Such a policy could save millions of lives if it caused the estimated 36.5 million Americans who smoke regularly to lose interest in lighting up. Smoking may be on the wane, but it is still the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What should have been tremendous news, however, was greeted with tempered optimism because of the troubling — and more certain — second part of Friday's announcement. As part of the agency's new anti-nicotine approach, key parts of the regulations it adopted last year on electronic cigarettes, cigars and other unregulated tobacco products will be put on hold for several years, even as the popularity of these products grows among young people.
Scott Gottlieb, the physician who leads the Food and Drug Administration, said the delay would give the agency time to determine whether the regulations fit into the bigger picture he has for tobacco regulation policy, specifically focusing on nicotine and urging smokers to shift their habits to less-dangerous vaping and non-combustible tobacco products. Meanwhile, he said the agency would come up with product standards to address exploding e-cigarette batteries and children's exposure to liquid nicotine, issues that have captured headlines but aren't the biggest dangers associated with electronic cigarettes.
Gottlieb is right that the combustion of traditional cigarettes is what makes them so dangerous. But all tobacco products come with some health risk, and it undermines the message to delay rules designed to ensure that those non-combustible products are safe to use. Among other things, the rules require manufacturers to disclose the contents of their liquid nicotine, allow government review of how the devices are made and put warnings on the packages. "This long delay will allow egregious, kid-friendly e-cigarettes and cigars, in flavors like gummy bear, cherry crush and banana smash, to stay on the market with little public health oversight," Matthew L. Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a statement. It's also yet another questionable procedural shortcut by the Trump administration to stymie rules adopted by its predecessor.
Did Gottlieb — recently a board member of a North Carolina e-cigarette retailing company — make the nicotine reduction announcement just to distract public attention from a rules change that helps electronic cigarette companies? We want to believe Gottlieb is sincere about regulation limiting nicotine. It would be one of the most important accomplishments of the Trump administration, though it would take years to implement. The damage caused by delaying the regulations on other tobacco products, however, will be immediate.