Monday, June 28, 2010

The Death of “Low Tar” Cigarettes… Or Maybe Not.

Is this the best the FDA can do?

Lots of cigarette news lately. To begin with, cigarette manufacturers will no longer be able to market specific brands as “low tar” or “light.” And while David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), called for the regulation of nicotine levels in cigarettes, cancer researchers were backpedaling away from some questionable numbers about cancer risk from smokeless tobacco offered up by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Meanwhile, the American Medical Association (AMA) called on the FDA to ban so-called e-cigarettes.

Covering nicotine news is inherently confusing, ambiguous, and tentative, since the product in question is a legal drug responsible for an immense amount of tax revenues. It is also addictive. The relatively inelastic nature of demand for nicotine products makes governments reluctant to, er, snuff out the tax bonanza in its entirety.

Nonetheless, Congress gave the FDA broad new regulatory power over cigarettes a year ago with the passage of the Tobacco Control Act of 2009Last week, various provisions of the bill became effective, including provisions that “prohibit the advertising or labeling of tobacco products with the descriptors ‘light,’ ‘mild,’ or ‘low’ or similar descriptors” without specific permission from the FDA.  (See earlier post). In addition, health warning labels will be strengthened on smokeless tobacco packaging.

“As FDA continues implementation of the Tobacco Control act, we are committed to assuring that the actions we are taking are grounded in science and are open and transparent with participation by various stakeholders,” according to a press release from the agency’s Center for Tobacco Products.

The problem, as a glance at the photograph above aptly demonstrates, is that the America tobacco industry is already a jump ahead of the FDA’s measured approach. The industry plans to “let the colors speak to smokers in the same way the soon-to-be banned words ‘mild,’ ‘light,’ and ‘ultralight’ did,” Stephen Smith wrote last year in the Boston Globe.

Thus Pall Mall Lights become Pall Mall Blues. Whereas Salem Lights will forever after be known as Salem Gold Box. And so on. “These tricks are now well-established,” tobacco control specialist Stanton Glantz of the University of California told the Boston Globe. “The real question for the FDA is, are they going to let them get away with these shenanigans?”

The FDA is changing colors on the packages, and roughing up the warning labels, and starting to zero in on menthol, but one of the things it won't be doing is lowering the nicotine levels in cigarettes. Former FDA chairman David Kessler, for one, insists that this is the only substantive change likely to make a difference in addiction rates. In an AP report by Michael Felberbaum, Kessler said: “The tobacco industry knew 40 years ago that there was a threshold below which people would quit. Reducing the level of nicotine in cigarettes will change smoking as we know it. It is the ultimate harm reduction strategy.”

Meanwhile, on another contested front, (see earlier post) the Partnership at reported that the AMA called on the FDA to regulate electronic cigarettes, which to date the agency has declined to do.  “Very little data exists on the safety of e-cigarettes,” said AMA board member Edward Langston. “Because e-cigarettes have not been thoroughly tested, one cannot conclude that they are less harmful or less dangerous than conventional cigarettes.” E-cigarettes also come in different candy and fruit flavors, the AMA pointed out during the process of adopting the policy at its annual meeting in Chicago.

And finally, a Wall Street Journal report by Carl Bialik in April caused a good deal of embarrassment at the American Cancer Society, which conceded that it had stopped using its long-cited figure of a 50-fold increase in the risk of oral cancer among users of smokeless tobacco. The National Cancer Institute has also cited the 50-times risk figure in its literature. As it turned out, the original survey had been about dry snuff, a form of tobacco rarely used in America today. Other scientists have concluded that the increased risk of oral cancer from smokeless tobacco is on the order of a factor of 10, not 50.

Photo credit:


Steve Clay said...

Is there data to support the notion that lower nicotine cigs lead to easier quitting? Or that they might lead to individuals smoking more?

A complete tobacco ban goes in place this week for the whole University of Florida campus. It includes e-cigarettes.

Dirk Hanson said...

An excellent question, and opinions are mixed. Kessler wants to cut the average cigarette from 10mgs to 1mg. Both pro- and anti-smoking groups are unsure of what that would mean. The worst case is, smokers smoke more cigarettes to compensate. Lots more.

Personally I think that instead of essentially buzzless cigarettes, we would be better off with selective bans--like college campuses.

Anonymous said...

They also banned candy cigarettes. Remember those? Apparently a higher percentage of youngsters who consumed candy cigs went on to become cigarette smokers than those who never had them.

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