Big Nicotine, Part I: Big Tobacco’s Drug Problem

Just over a week ago, the United States Food and Drug Administration announced what new FDA chief Dr. Scott Gottileb called “a cornerstone of our new and more comprehensive approach to effective tobacco regulation”: an initiative to reduce the nicotine content in cigarettes to “minimally or nonaddictive” levels. The 2009 Tobacco Control Act gave FDA authority to reduce any “additives, constituents…, or other component of a tobacco product.”

Obama Tobacco
President Barack Obama signing the Tobacco Control Act

Public health historian Robert Proctor was thrilled. “This is exceptionally good news for tobacco control, and for human health,” he wrote last week in the New York Times. Not so for companies like Altria and British American Tobacco, whose stock value fell within an hour of the statement (and recovered somewhat before the closing bell).

Big Tobacco was reeling for good reason: nicotine is the primary addictive component of cigarette smoking, not incidentally the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. The addictive capacity of nicotine is now practically indisputable. For over sixty years, government regulators, independent researchers, and tobacco company scientists have investigated the extent of that capacity and the danger it poses when delivered via tar-laden cigarettes.

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