The Biden administration is making some dramatic moves to crack down on tobacco and nicotine products. On Thursday, the FDA ordered the vaping company Juul’s products off the market entirely. And earlier this week, the administration put forward a rule that, if enacted (a big if), would have far more pronounced effects: drastically limiting the amount of nicotine in cigarettes sold in the U.S.
In a statement, FDA commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf wrote that “today’s action is further progress on the F.D.A.’s commitment to ensuring that all e-cigarette and electronic nicotine delivery system products currently being marketed to consumers meet our public health standards.”
Juul exploded onto the scene in the late 2010s, quickly gaining popularity among teenagers and 20-somethings who saw vaping as a less dangerous alternative to cigarettes — but also hooking many people who wouldn’t have touched tobacco products in the first place. The company’s vape cartridges came in sweet and fruity flavors that seemed designed for a young audience, and the prevalence of use in high schools soon created a backlash. The FDA banned such flavors altogether in 2020, during the Trump administration, and ordered that all e-cigarette brands submit to a lengthy review. In the meantime, Juul has continued to sell tobacco-flavored vape products, but its attempt to position itself as a more responsible, smoking-cessation-focused company backfired, and sales have tumbled in recent years. Still, it sold $1.3 billion worth of products last year while losing money overall.
Juul can appeal the FDA’s decision, but if it stands, the move will likely drive many of the company’s enthusiasts to other vaping brands — and possibly to cigarettes.
If the FDA has its way, those cigarettes could be a lot less harmful in a few years. A proposed rule floated by the agency would drastically cut the amount of nicotine in cigarettes in an attempt to address an ongoing public-health crisis that has somewhat receded into the background in recent years.
The rule, which proposes a maximum legal level of nicotine, is only in the regulatory-planning stages; the next step will come in May 2023, when the FDA is expected to make it official. At that point, it would very likely face lengthy lawsuits from big tobacco companies, which still rake in billions of dollars of profits per year.
If the rule is put into place, health experts believe it would make smoking considerably less addictive, which would have a huge effect.
“It will transform public health in the United States and literally do more to reduce cancer, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease than any other set of actions the government could take,” Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told CNN.
Smoking remains a health scourge. It causes 480,000 deaths per year in the U.S., according to the CDC. The agency estimates that 12.5 percent of the adult population currently smokes — a number that has rapidly dwindled in recent years (its all-time high was 45 percent in the mid-1950s) but still represents more than 30 million Americans.