ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Food and Drug Administration today announced a major shift in how the agency plans to fight smoking. In what would be a first, the FDA is planning to reduce the level of nicotine that is allowed in tobacco cigarettes. The agency is also making changes in how it regulates electronic cigarettes. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here with more on today's development. And, Rob, what is the FDA's rationale for wanting to lower the amount of nicotine in cigarettes?
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Well, as you know, Robert, cigarette smoking is a huge public health problem. I mean, it's the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Something like 480,000 Americans die each year from tobacco-related diseases. And the big reason for that is nicotine is a powerful addictive drug. So the FDA says, you know, weaning American smokers off nicotine could go a long way towards helping many more kick the habit and save tens of thousands of lives every year.
SIEGEL: Is the FDA saying how much it wants to cut the amount of nicotine in cigarettes by and how quickly it wants to make those cuts?
STEIN: Not yet. At the moment, all the FDA is doing is kind of putting the tobacco industry on notice and saying this is something we're planning to do. But that's a big question that the FDA is going to have to figure out. Can you reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes to the point where they're no longer addictive but that smokers are no longer - are trying to smoke more cigarettes to try to get their nicotine fix? And there is a fair amount of scientific evidence that says, yes, that is possible, but you have to still...
SIEGEL: You can find that sweet spot.
STEIN: That's right.
SIEGEL: The FDA made some other announcements today in connection with nicotine and cigarettes. What were those?
STEIN: Yeah, so the big announcement had to do with electronic cigarettes, e-cigarettes. You know, these are the things that kind look like regular cigarettes, but instead of burning tobacco, they heat up a liquid that contains nicotine that turns into a vapor that users inhale. It's called vaping. And these are very controversial devices. There's a lot of concern they could hook a new generation of kids on nicotine. And the FDA says, OK, we're going to go forward with regulations like banning sales to kids and forcing the e-cigarette makers to reveal the ingredients in these devices. But it is delaying a big one. It's going to let all the e-cigarettes that are currently on the market to stay on the market much longer before they're required to go through a careful and expensive regulatory review by the agency.
SIEGEL: Why is it doing that?
STEIN: Well, basically, the FDA says, look, we might need these e-cigarettes. You know, imagine - you suddenly slash the amount of nicotine in cigarettes, you're going have all these addicted smokers desperate for nicotine. Where are they going to get it? I mean, they can use, you know, nicotine patches and gum, but e-cigarettes might offer a really good alternative.
SIEGEL: What is the reaction to all of this from the FDA?
STEIN: Yeah, so, you know, this is a big blow to the tobacco industry. And - but so far their response has been fairly muted. They're saying things like, you know, we're going to work with the FDA and do whatever we need to do. But they're saying things like we want them to take a scientific approach to this sort of thing. The e-cigarette makers, as you might imagine, are thrilled. I mean, they've been arguing for a long time that their devices are much safer than regular cigarettes and could provide a way for people to kick the habit.
And, you know, the anti-smoking and public health experts that I talked to today are thrilled. They're saying this could be a landmark moment in the fight against tobacco. But they're also a little cautious and saying, you know, we're a little worried that this could become kind of an excuse to delay the e-cigarette rules without ever getting around to actually cutting the amount of nicotine in cigarettes. So they are sort of taking a wait-and-see approach and saying, you know, look, the devil's in the details in how the FDA goes about actually implementing this plan.
SIEGEL: OK, NPR's Rob Stein, thanks.
STEIN: Oh, sure. Nice to be here.
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