March 4th, 2013
The Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law and its President, Dick Daynard have long sought to make an impact on public health and policy by thinking outside the box. In an op-ed piece published in today’s New York Times, Daynard looks at an endgame for cigarette-caused addiction, disease and death in the U.S. and focuses in on two complementary but independent regulatory strategies.
The first strategy, available to the FDA under its authority granted in 2009 by Congress through the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, is to reduce the nicotine content of cigarettes (and cigarette-like products) to non-addictive levels. Reducing nicotine yields of tobacco products (to anything above zero) is specifically mentioned in the law and, given strong evidence that it would benefit public health, there is nothing stopping the FDA from taking this bold step. While many smokers will quit if cigarettes do not deliver sufficient nicotine to maintain their addiction, others may chose to use tobacco products with higher levels of nicotine. But because cigarettes are, far and away, the most toxic product available for delivering nicotine, making them non-addictive is the only responsible thing to do. It will help existing smokers to quit or move to less dangerous sources of nicotine, stop smoking experimentation by youth from becoming a deadly addiction, and dramatically reduce non-smokers’ exposure to tobacco smoke. Public polling, while limited, consistently shows significant support, even by smokers, for reducing nicotine in cigarettes.
The second strategy relies on states and even communities regulating the sales of cigarettes under the principles of a proposal that has gained some traction outside of the U.S., called the Smokefree Millennial Generation. I feel it should be named in honor of the late Dr. C. Everett Koop who once challenged America of become a smokefree nation by 2000. The idea is that if a person’s birth year begins with the number “2,” that person shall not purchase cigarettes (or little cigars or other cigarette-like products). The legal authority for states and communities to enact such sales restrictions was clearly stated in the legislation that granted the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco (although communities could be preempted in some states). This proposal would gradually phase out smoking, beginning with the Millennials in 2018, wherever it was enacted. As more states adopted this policy, there would be fewer places willing to sell cigarettes to 18-year-olds who are unlikely to have the mobility to get a sufficient cross-border supply to initiate or maintain addiction.
While each of these strategies would face likely legal challenges that would delay but probably not overturn the regulatory policies in question, as well as public relations and implementation challenges, the time has finally come to put an end to smoking and smoking-caused disease by focusing narrowly on the highest impact policies that would dramatically reduce smoking rates in a decade. It is PHAI’s hope that today’s op-ed will generate a discussion and support among public health and tobacco control leaders so we can work together to truly achieve our shared goal of sharply reducing preventable death and disease. Eliminating smoking may seem way outside the box, but it is the best place to start.