Government plans to cut nicotine content of cigarettes, which may make smokers smoke more

Government plans to cut nicotine content of cigarettes, which may make smokers smoke more

Soon, smokers will have to smoke more cigarettes to satisfy their craving for nicotine — thanks to a regulation being drafted by the Biden Administration. Smoking more cigarettes means more cancer risk. It is the smoke from cigarettes that causes cancer — not the nicotine in them.

On June 21, the Biden administration revealed it is working on a plan to require cigarette manufacturers to radically reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes. An upcoming proposed rule change “would establish a maximum nicotine level in cigarettes and certain finished tobacco products.”

As Reason Magazine notes,

Nicotine is the substance in cigarettes that makes them physically addictive. But nicotine itself isn’t what makes cigarettes so dangerous. (Some scientists “wonder if a daily dose could be as benign as the caffeine many of us get from a morning coffee,” notes Scientific American.) It’s the other ingredients in cigarettes, and the byproducts of combustion, that make smoking cigarettes so bad for you….In a world with lower-nicotine cigarettes, people already addicted to nicotine will still be addicted—they’ll just have to smoke more cigarettes to get their nicotine fix. That means that mandating all U.S. cigarettes be low-nicotine cigarettes could actually make smoking riskier by requiring smokers to smoke more and consume more of the other substances in cigarettes in order to get the same level of nicotine they’re used to.

Filter magazine discusses the possibility that lowering nicotine levels could backfire by making smokers think that cigarettes are harmless if they contain less nicotine — even though they aren’t. It says the FDA’s “scaremongering has managed to convince many people that nicotine is the most harmful ingredient of a combustible cigarette, when nicotine does not cause significant harms.” As a result, “many smokers may understand the new products to be a government-approved green light to carry on smoking tobacco. This misguided understanding is liable to have deadly consequences.”

Meanwhile, notes Reason, “while authorities have gone all-in on low-nicotine cigarettes as a means to reduce smoking, they’ve repeatedly attacked a more sane way to do so: promoting vaping—which provides nicotine without the tar and combustion—as an alternative to smoking.”

The FDA has threatened the legality of vaping by banning most of the e-cigarettes sold on the market, by either rejecting them, or delaying their approval. The FDA is preparing to order the biggest brand of e-cigarettes (Juul) off the market as soon as this week, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Washington Post editorial board defends the FDA’s anticipated ban on cigarettes with normal levels of nicotine, claiming that

The idea is to make cigarettes unattractive to people addicted to nicotine and to encourage them to get their fix in less dangerous ways — or simply to quit. While highly addictive, nicotine does not damage people’s bodies the way other chemicals in cigarette smoke do. If smokers could not extract large amounts of nicotine from cigarettes, they would turn to vaping or smoking-cessation products such as nicotine gum or patches. Some questions remain about vaping’s effects on health, but there is little serious doubt that it is a far less deadly alternative for chronic cigarette smokers.

But if this is the idea behind the ban, why is the government moving toward banning the most commonly-used smoking-cessation product — e-cigarettes, which produce vapor rather than smoke?

The FDA’s ban on a vast range of e-cigarettes will make it harder for many smokers to quit smoking, by depriving them of alternative ways of satisfying their craving for nicotine. The FDA has also rejected applications for most other “vapor products” containing nicotine.

E-cigarettes save lives by weaning many smokers (like my wife, who uses Juul) off of cigarettes. If retailers stop selling e-cigarettes, that will cost many lives, because e-cigarettes are a substitute for cigarettes, which cause cancer.

The fact that e-cigarettes contain nicotine does not make them dangerous. Nicotine — unlike tobacco smoke — does not cause cancer. Indeed, nicotine helps with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, according to a study. “Study finds nicotine safe, helps in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s,” reported the Tampa Bay Times.

But the government may have a bad motive for cutting off the supply of e-cigarettes. Curbing the sale of e-cigarettes enriches the powerful trial lawyers who bankroll Democratic politicians. That’s because curbs on vaping increase cigarette consumption, and rising cigarette consumption increases payments to trial lawyers and state governments under the tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.

Politico notes that the “FDA has ordered more than 5 million e-cigarette products off the market.” And it continues to order more e-cigarettes off the market.

“E-cigarettes could replace much or most of cigarette consumption in the U.S. in the next decade,” thereby improving public health, according to William T. Godshall, the executive director of Smokefree Pennsylvania. His group had campaigned in the past for smoke-free public vicinities, higher cigarette taxes, and cigarette pack graphic warnings. Vaping is so much less risky than smoking, that Godshall rated e-cigarettes a 2 or lower on a scale of harm ranging 1 to 100, where cigarettes are 100.

When smokers switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes, that reduces cancer deaths. But it also leaves lawyers and state governments with less cigarette revenue.

In 1998, the big tobacco companies entered into the tobacco Master Settlement Agreement with state governments and the lawyers they hired to sue the tobacco companies. The states and some of their lawyers receive payments based on the number of cigarettes the tobacco companies sell. So every time a smoker quits, lawyers and states end up with less money. These lawyers are very powerful and influential, and have close political ties to progressive state attorneys general.

If smokers have to smoke more cigarettes to get the same amount of nicotine (due to the government mandating low-nicotine cigarettes), that increases payments under the tobacco settlement.

The American Bar Association Journal estimated the value of the tobacco settlement as $246 billion to the states, and $15 billion to the lawyers they hired. Economists like Stanford’s Jeremy Bulow say that virtually the entire cost of the settlement is paid for by America’s smokers, even though the lawsuits that led to the settlement claimed that smokers were defrauded by tobacco companies that lied about the dangers of smoking.

Restrictions on e-cigarettes drive people back to smoking cigarettes, which are more harmful to their health, notes Reason Magazine. Research indicated that “a ban on flavored e-cigarettes in San Francisco…increased the use of combustible tobacco among teens.” And “e-cigarette taxes likely push many kids to smoke (far more dangerous) cigarettes,” says economist Scott Lincicome, citing a National Bureau of Economic Research paper. It noted that e-cigarette sales lead to “reduced cigarette use,” while e-cigarette taxes “significantly increase cigarette use.” That is disturbing, given the “evidence suggesting smoking is substantially more dangerous than” vaping e-cigarettes.

As Reason points out, “the best available evidence suggests that vaping is far safer than smoking cigarettes, that it is more effective than nicotine patches or gums at helping smokers quit, and that the health benefits of encouraging smokers to switch outweigh the harms of vaping.” Research shows that “widespread switching from smoking to vaping would prevent between 1.6 million and 6.6 million premature deaths by 2100.”

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at


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