FDA pushing to limit amount of nicotine in cigarettes – should Canada too?

A smoker is seen holding his cigarette during a smoke break outside a building in North Vancouver, B.C. Monday, Jan. 20, 2014.
A smoker is seen holding his cigarette during a smoke break outside a building in North Vancouver, B.C. Monday, Jan. 20, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering limits on the amount of nicotine permitted in cigarettes in an effort to help smokers quit and keep young people from getting hooked.

New details provided in a government filing on Friday propose cutting the addictive chemical by as much as 80 per cent. There are not currently any limits on nicotine in cigarettes in the U.S. or in Canada.

The agency calculates that about five million more people would quit cigarettes within one year of implementing limits. The greatest impact, though, would come from preventing young people from ever becoming addicted, they said.

Limiting nicotine “could help keep future generations of kids who experiment with cigarettes from making the deadly progression from experimentation to addiction,” said Mitch Zeller, the head of the FDA’s tobacco centre.

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The agency is currently accepting public comment on the proposal before it moves ahead with regulations.

Peter Selby, director of medical education at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and a tobacco researcher, thinks that the idea is a good one.

“Nicotine is what makes people addicted. It’s not what causes most of the harm,” he said.

“Most of the harm is actually from the product, which is about 7,000 chemicals when you combust the tobacco and the paper.”

So people who are hooked on nicotine might look elsewhere for the drug. “If for example there are people who want nicotine in high doses, they may be more amenable to getting it in a cleaner format rather than a combustible cigarette. They may decide to vape or they get medical nicotine through the patches or gums or sprays.”

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But he cautions that there may be unintended consequences as people hooked on nicotine compensate for the deficit through other behaviours, like smoking more cigarettes or smoking them faster, adding nicotine to the cigarette, buying high-nicotine cigarettes on the black market, or if they aren’t similarly regulated, buying cigars instead.

The FDA’s studies on the subject so far haven’t shown that people develop such behaviours. However, Selby wonders how well that will translate to the real world, outside of a controlled setting.

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Cigarette makers generally have vowed to take part in the nicotine discussions, often emphasizing the long, complicated nature of creating new regulations.

“Altria has already been preparing for any reasonable potential standard, and we plan to participate in every step of this process,” said Altria, parent company of Marlboro-maker Philip Morris USA, in a statement.

Tobacco industry analyst Bonnie Herzog estimates it will be four to five years before the FDA puts in place any changes, due to “the sheer complexities and risks involved.”

Controls in Canada?

Selby thinks that the FDA’s nicotine proposal is just one component in what should be a comprehensive anti-smoking strategy that reduces access to cigarettes, controls the black market, and regulates the price.

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However, he still supports the idea and believes that Canada should look at adopting similar measures.

“I would say go ahead and do it,” he said. “Worst case scenario, there’s no change.”

“The best case scenario is that less kids will get addicted and people will find it easier to stop because they don’t have a product that is hooking them all the time.”

Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, is unconvinced. Cutting nicotine is “functionally the same as banning cigarettes” and wouldn’t work, he thinks.

He believes that people would just switch to contraband cigarettes and that a better policy change would be higher taxes on tobacco.

Health Canada is interested in investigating the potential of reduced-nicotine tobacco, the department said, and continues to monitor the impact of actions taken by the U.S. and other jurisdictions when considering Canada’s approach to tobacco control.

—With files from the Associated Press

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