This Reuters story reports on a new FDA proposal to lower nicotine levels in cigarettes in order to reduce the addictiveness of smoking.
It’s thought that such a move would help current smokers to quit their habit while also reducing the likelihood that those experimenting would get addicted. The story hits many bases, but doesn’t spend enough time discussing the evidence behind the proposal.
Smoking contributes to many diseases, including heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, and cancer. The CDC says smoking is the leading cause of preventable death — worldwide and in the US. Because of its impact on the health of Americans, any intervention that aims to reduce smoking is worthy of news coverage.
This is a proposal for reformulating a product already on the market. Also the cost is not closely tied to their contents — cigarettes are among the most highly taxed products in the US.
It’s too early to know if cigarette costs would be altered by this proposal, so we’ll rate this as not applicable.
The story informed readers that the FDA’s own analysis predicts “would help 5 million smokers quit within a year and prevent more than 33 million teens and young adults from becoming regular smokers by the year 2100.” We think more could have said about the data this was based, but we address that below, in evidence quality.
The story did not mention possible harms of introducing low-nicotine cigarettes, namely that it might encourage current smokers to smoke more to get their usual dose or make people think the cigarettes aren’t as harmful, so they aren’t as cautious about intake. In that scenario, smokers would be inhaling more of the toxic smoke that causes damage to the lungs. We think it’s important to share with readers if researchers have looked into this, and if it’s indeed a concern, as NPR did.
While the story gave a brief description of the benefits of lowering nicotine levels in cigarettes, it provided no information about how those numbers were obtained. It didn’t even mention that the data were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, as many other outlets did.
No disease-mongering here. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths, according to the CDC.
The story contained information from two FDA officials, one quote from an antismoking group (the identical quote was found in several different news stories), and a comment from a cigarette maker. We only wished that there was an outside source commenting on the quality of the projected benefits or of the possible harms of this plan.
The story mentioned e-cigarettes in passing and mentioned the FDA’s efforts to tackle smoking in general. However, there are a host of ways that federal policy might tackle smoking rates in this country that were not raised, including outlawing menthol cigarettes, placing further restrictions on advertising, and adding stronger language or graphic warnings on cigarette packaging.
It’s clear that lowering nicotine in cigarettes is in the proposal stage.
The story makes very clear that this is a new and sweeping effort by the FDA to reduce smoking rates in the US.
The story did not appear to rely solely on a news release.