FDA’s Anti-Smoking Initiative Might Only End Up Benefiting Big Tobacco, Experts Warn

Critics of the FDA's plan are doubtful that tobacco companies will comply by drastically reducing nicotine levels, and concerned that they could also launch cigarette alternatives that still might carry substantial health risks.

FDA's Anti-Smoking Initiative Might Only End Up Benefiting Big Tobacco, Experts Warn
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Critics of the FDA's plan are doubtful that tobacco companies will comply by drastically reducing nicotine levels, and concerned that they could also launch cigarette alternatives that still might carry substantial health risks.

Cigarettes are no longer what they used to be several decades ago — a symbol of sophistication for some, the epitome of youthful rebellion for others. And while numerous initiatives, reforms, and simple health warnings have helped bring adult smoking rates down to record lows, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is pushing to bring these figures down even further, with a new campaign to crack down on cigarettes. There are, however, some concerns that the FDA’s anti-smoking plan might be counterproductive to the point that Big Tobacco — the collective name for the world’s five largest tobacco companies— might “survive [and] even thrive for generations to come” by selling cigarette alternatives to consumers.

On Friday, the Associated Press‘ Matthew Perrone published an extensive report on the FDA’s anti-smoking proposal, which hopes to dramatically reduce nicotine levels in cigarettes, thereby rendering them non-addictive, while also offering lower-risk products to smokers who aren’t able to quit for one reason or another. The initiative is expected to kick off this month, as the FDA will likely begin a “years-long” process to work on the first item in its two-point plan, and work on controlling nicotine in cigarettes. Additionally, the agency will be holding a meeting next week to discuss the prospective U.S. launch of a cigarette alternative from Big Tobacco company Philip Morris International.

As noted by the AP, the product is known as iQOS, and it is a pen-like device that works by heating Marlboro-branded tobacco, but not actually burning it. Philip Morris claims that this process helps reduce exposure to tar and other toxins that are created when people smoke regular cigarettes. And while the device is similar in shape to certain e-cigarettes, using iQOS is different from vaping, as e-cigarettes use e-juices with varying levels of nicotine, but don’t use any actual tobacco. The device is expected to be available in the U.S. in February should the FDA approve it.

In a guest op-ed for the Bend Bulletin, Cascade Policy Institute founder and senior policy analyst Steve Buckstein wrote that the FDA should approve iQOS, which he described as the “purest form of an electronic cigarette,” and a device that helped close to 4 million adults in dozens of other countries quit smoking. He also cited the FDA’s statements on its anti-smoking campaign, as the agency believes that “modified-risk” tobacco products like iQOS play a significant role in its efforts to promote public health and convince companies to make tobacco products less addictive and less toxic.

According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control Prevention, about 36.5 million people, or 15.1 percent of all adult Americans, were current cigarette smokers in 2015, with slightly more than three-fourths of those smokers consuming at least one cigarette a day. The AP report noted that even if this was a record-low figure, smoking is still the United States’ leading preventable cause of death and illness, as cigarettes are believed to be responsible for about 20 percent of all U.S. deaths, per recent statistics.

With cigarettes still a leading health concern at the present, the Associated Press wrote that there are anti-smoking advocates who believe that the FDA’s proposal makes it hard to land a “knockout blow” against the tobacco industry, stressing that there is no such thing as a safe tobacco product, and that the FDA should focus on providing tools that can safely help people cease tobacco consumption once and for all.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids spokesman Matthew Myers expressed his concerns about iQOS, saying that it should strictly be marketed to adult smokers who can’t, or won’t, quit cigarettes. He warned that failure to do so may result in young people or adult non-smokers seeing the device as a completely safe alternative, or in current smokers using iQOS while still smoking regular cigarettes as usual. Myers also hinted that the device might indeed help the tobacco industry stay afloat despite existing efforts to crack down on smoking.

“As a growing percentage of the world makes the decision that smoking is too dangerous and too risky, iQOS provides an alternative to quitting that keeps [tobacco companies] in the market.”

The FDA’s anti-smoking plan, as noted by the AP, works on the assumption that Big Tobacco will start providing cigarette alternatives once the agency’s regulators persuade cigarette makers to reduce nicotine in their products. That could also require tobacco companies to “willingly” stop selling cigarettes, which are still profitable despite statistics showing record low adult smoking levels. According to Kenneth Warner, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, it would be surprising for Big Tobacco to cooperate with the FDA and reduce nicotine levels without complaint.

“I don’t think they will. I think they will bring out all of their political guns against it and I’m quite certain they will sue to prevent it,” said Warner.

Should tobacco companies balk at the first part of the FDA’s plan, anti-smoking activists believe that this would result in the agency’s initiative getting bogged down in court, with companies taking advantage of potential stalemates by launching alternative products with the FDA’s blessing. While this might benefit the tobacco space instead of crippling it, as many activists have hoped, industry representatives played it coy in their statements to the Associated Press, refusing to comment on what could happen during a regulatory process that could take several years, and emphasizing an intent to work closely with the FDA on its two-point anti-smoking initiative.