Biden Administration to Pursue Rule Requiring Less Nicotine in U.S. Cigarettes

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The Biden administration intends to pursue a policy requiring tobacco companies to reduce the nicotine in all cigarettes sold in the U.S. to minimally or nonaddictive levels, according to people familiar with the matter, a move that would upend the tobacco industry.

The policy likely wouldn’t take effect for several years. The Food and Drug Administration first must publish a proposed rule, then invite public comments before publishing a final rule, according to the people familiar with the matter. Tobacco companies could then sue, which could further delay the policy’s implementation.

The move would be the biggest step by the U.S. government to curb smoking since a landmark legal settlement in 1998, when tobacco companies agreed to pay more than $200 billion to help states pay for healthcare. As part of the settlement, the companies also agreed to various marketing restrictions, including a ban on free product samples and advertising on billboards.

Nicotine is an addictive chemical found in cigarettes and other tobacco products. While nicotine hooks people on cigarettes, nicotine itself doesn’t cause cancer, heart disease or lung disease, according to the FDA. It is other harmful compounds in cigarette smoke that are associated with more than 480,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nicotine levels in cigarettes can be reduced in different ways. Manufacturers can adjust the blend of tobacco leaves or use different types of paper or filters. Nicotine can also be stripped from the leaf in the manufacturing process. One company uses genetic engineering to grow tobacco with 95% less nicotine than a typical tobacco plant.

Lowering nicotine in cigarettes has been a subject of discussion inside the FDA since the 1990s. In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act authorized the FDA to mandate such a change—with the stipulation that the policy be based on scientific evidence, a caveat that slowed the process for years.

The White House didn’t immediately comment.

Write to Jennifer Maloney at [email protected]

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