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It's been just a few years that the federal government has been in the business of approving how tobacco products are made and sold in this country. The Food and Drug Administration must review all new cigarettes or smokeless tobacco and any changes to existing brands. But the FDA has yet to clear any products under the new system. And NPR's Debbie Elliott reports some cigarette makers are frustrated with a backlog of applications.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The FDA typically evaluates new drugs and other products with a safe and defective standard.

LAWRENCE DEYTON: That standard doesn't work for tobacco products.

ELLIOTT: That's Lawrence Deyton. It's his job to figure out how a public health agency will regulate a consumer product that's proven to be addictive and deadly. He's director of FDA's new Center for Tobacco Products created by Congress in a 2009 law that gives FDA jurisdiction over tobacco. Deyton says because there's no safe way to smoke, for instance, the FDA is using what's calling a population health standard to evaluate tobacco.

DEYTON: I sort of think of it as a ceiling of harm. Things will get no worse and any changes or new products that come on the market have to be appropriate for the protection of public health or raise no different questions of public health.

ELLIOTT: Tobacco companies have not asked the agency to approve any new products so far, but have submitted more than 3,500 applications for changes to existing brands, changes that the companies say are so minor that they don't raise different questions of public health. The FDA has not approved any of the applications, some pending more than a year-and-a-half. Deyton says, they are getting the appropriate scientific scrutiny.

DEYTON: I'd rather get it right than get it fast.

ELLIOTT: Major cigarette makers declined to be interviewed by NPR for this story. But in a petition filed with the FDA, Lorillard calls the inaction a de facto embargo on new product introductions that hampers competition. Deyton says that's not the agency's intention.

DEYTON: We're absolutely not deliberately trying to slow products from getting to market.

ELLIOTT: But tobacco industry analyst Jack Russo of Edward Jones says the new regulatory framework is likely to slow the pace of getting products to the shelves.

JACK RUSSO: It's going to be tough to get really any new product through.

ELLIOTT: He says the apparent FDA logjam is frustrating for an industry looking to expand as more people quit smoking.

RUSSO: Anything you can get through to the public that could be new might help you outperform the competition a little bit in what is a very tough industry to grow. So every little bit helps, I guess is what I'm trying to say. But the FDA certainly isn't making it easy on anybody.

ELLIOTT: Anti-smoking activists believe the FDA hurdle is long overdue. Danny McGoldrick is vice president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

DANNY MCGOLDRICK: If it keeps the tobacco companies — yeah, if they're going to whine about not being able to put their new products on the market as quickly as they would like, you know, the history of that, the history of their innovation shows us that it tends to make the products more addictive, more appealing and more harmful. And we don't need any more of that.

ELLIOTT: Some public health advocates would like to see FDA crack down even harder on the tobacco industry with actions like a ban on menthol-flavored cigarettes and tighter restrictions on advertising and marketing. The agency has tried to mandate harsh new warning labels, but cigarette makers have challenged them in court.

STANTON GLANTZ: It's not working very well at all.

ELLIOTT: Stan Glantz is the director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California San Francisco. He thinks the FDA should reject all applications for changes to tobacco products.

GLANTZ: If making these changes wasn't doing something that was going to somehow positively affect sales, the companies wouldn't be doing it because they're in business to make money.

ELLIOTT: Money that is harder to make now that U.S. smoking rates have remained at about 20 percent for nearly ten years now. The question is whether FDA's new role can further curtail tobacco use, the leading preventable cause of death in the country. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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