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How strong is the evidence behind FDA’s proposal to reduce nicotine levels in cigarettes? Reuters story doesn’t say


3 Star


FDA takes fresh step towards curbing U.S. nicotine addiction

Our Review Summary

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.


Why This Matters

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.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

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.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


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.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


No disease-mongering here. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths, according to the CDC.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


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.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


It’s clear that lowering nicotine in cigarettes is in the proposal stage.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story makes very clear that this is a new and sweeping effort by the FDA to reduce smoking rates in the US.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The story did not appear to rely solely on a news release.

Total Score: 6 of 9 Satisfactory


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