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FDA Reboots Tobacco Regulation with Harm Reduction

August 15th, 2017

On Friday, July 28, 2017, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb unveiled a revamped approach to tobacco product regulation in an announcement that surprised tobacco companies, investors, and the public health community in equal measure.  The goal, as articulated by Gottlieb, will be to regulate products so as to encourage migrating existing consumers from the most lethal combustible tobacco products (i.e., cigarettes) to non-combustible products lower on the continuum of risk. This approach is known as “harm reduction.”  The keystone will be to promulgate product standards so that cigarettes deliver insufficient nicotine to users to create or sustain addiction so that current nonsmokers never start and current smokers either quit or switch to non-combustible tobacco product that present a lower health risk.

This idea, while somewhat radical, is not new.  It had been a topic of discussion at the American Medical Association in the mid-1990s. Congress gave the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco in 2009 with the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 (“Tobacco Control Act”).  It prohibited the agency from banning cigarettes or from banning nicotine.  The law does, however, explicitly allow for the potential reduction of nicotine in cigarettes to any level above zero.  The Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law produced a white paper on this approach in 2009 and proposed further research on the policy, but enthusiasm at the agency and the Executive Branch was lacking. Northeastern University Distinguished Professor, Richard A. Daynard, characterized non-addictive cigarettes in the New York Times as one of two important strategies that could end the cycle of addiction, disease, and death from tobacco products.

Research to date, including a $50 million research project funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, have produced preliminary results supporting the notion that very low nicotine cigarettes will lead to fewer cigarettes smoked and reduced toxic exposure to consumers.  So long as the nicotine levels are very low, compensatory smoking behaviors such as inhaling more deeply and smoking greater numbers of cigarettes do not seem to generally occur.  Some of these preliminary results were presented at Northeastern University School of Law in 2014 by a Principal Investigator of the grant, Dorothy Hatsukami, at PHAI’s conference, “Accelerating Tobacco Endgame Strategies in the United States.”

Another important tool that the FDA can use is to issue rules pertaining to the use of flavors in tobacco products.  While the Tobacco Control Act banned the use of characterizing flavors other than mint or menthol in cigarettes, concerns around the role of flavors in tobacco initiation have intensified in recent years.  “Little cigars,” which closely resemble cigarettes, are available in a range of child-friendly flavors.  E-cigarettes, likewise, have been criticized for offering fruit and candy flavors that would seem to appeal to children.

The question of exempting menthol flavored cigarettes from the flavor ban has been extremely controversial.  The Tobacco Control Act, it was thought, would not have garnered the votes needed to pass Congress were a menthol cigarette ban included.  Rather, the law specified that an expert committee must be convened by FDA to study the issue and issue a report on the health impact of menthol as a characterizing flavor in tobacco products.

The resulting reports concluded that although menthol itself did not contribute to the toxicity of tobacco products, it tended to anesthetize the lungs in a way that facilitates smoking initiation by youth and frustrated cessation efforts.  Further, mentholated cigarettes have been historically marketed in a way that targets African Americans.  Almost 90% of African American smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, which is the most robust sector of the cigarette industry in the United States.  The company that produces the menthol market leader, Newport, was recently acquired by R.J. Reynolds which, in turn, was acquired by British American Tobacco this year. Reportedly, much of the value sought in these acquisitions derived from the Newport brand and the value of menthol cigarettes.

To date, the FDA has taken no action on mentholated tobacco products.  Chicago and San Francisco have passed ordinances restricting sales of menthol tobacco products.  San Francisco’s ordinance, which passed in July of 2017, is a total ban on all flavored tobacco product sales, including menthol.

The FDA announced that it will soon release three Preliminary Notice of Proposed Rulemakings seeking public and stakeholder comment on: 1) pros and cons of nicotine reduction strategies; 2) role of characterizing flavors, including menthol, in youth initiation and as a means to attract smokers to non-combustible tobacco products with less risk; and 3) potential health risks and use patterns of premium cigars.

Non-combustible products such as electronic nicotine delivery systems including e-cigarettes and emerging “heat-not-burn” products would be likely alternatives to non-addictive cigarettes as would nicotine replacement therapies such as the gum and patch.  While this harm reduction approach has many supporters in the public health community, it would have the likely effect of perpetuating the commercialized recreational use of nicotine long into the future.

Since the FDA began regulating tobacco products in 2009, almost every substantive regulatory effort has been met with litigation. This includes 2 lawsuits challenging a host of the law’s provisions; challenges to the legal legitimacy of the report FDA issued about menthol; a successful First Amendment challenge to regulations for graphic cigarette warning labels; and a dozen or so lawsuits challenging the agency’s regulation of e-cigarettes and cigars.

This litany of litigation has, to this point, slowed or partially derailed the agency’s regulatory agenda and has drawn the criticism of many in the public health community. The FDA’s announcement marks a new and more aggressive regulatory vision for tobacco. Many questions remain. Is the scientific evidence base sufficient to justify this new approach?  What will be the effect of inevitable legal challenges from manufacturers and smokers? What are the health impact of non-combustible tobacco products to users and non-users?  How did the political environment in the Executive Branch change to allow for this new strategy to emerge and will it last?

With so many questions remaining and so many potential rules to enact, the timeline for the FDA to implement its new regulatory approach is uncertain.  Based on past experience, it would be reasonable to expect that it may be a decade or more until cigarettes are non-addictive.  Until then, there will be an effort by the tobacco industry to attract millions of consumers to new, less dangerous, but still addictive tobacco products.

Author –  Public Health Advocacy Institute
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