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Are Low-Nicotine Cigarettes Less Likely To Cause Cancer?

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Carl V. Phillips Contributor
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In a bit of dark humor from the world of research, a recent study out of University of North Carolina reported that half of American smokers believe very low nicotine cigarettes are less likely to cause cancer than regular cigarettes. The survey, conducted in 2015 and 2016, also found that a quarter of smokers said they would be less likely to quit smoking if such cigarettes were available. Forcing cigarette manufacturers to remove the nicotine from cigarettes is a favorite dream of one faction of tobacco controllers, and has become the leading declared intention of FDA in their tobacco policy. It is supposed to make people smokers want to quit.

The irony is that as part of the war on vaping, many tobacco controllers are aggressively trying to demonize nicotine. Since nicotine is really the only interesting exposure from vaping, their desire to attack vaping requires making up stories about nicotine. Consider, for example the recent study claiming vapor causes cancer. It is not surprising that the resulting disinformation means that few people realize that nicotine itself is approximately harmless, and very plausibly causes a net health benefit.

There is no reason to believe that lowering the nicotine content of cigarettes will lower their carcinogenicity. Indeed, by making people smoke more cigarettes and more intensively to get nicotine, the reasonable prediction is that smokers’ cancer risk will be increased.

Misperceptions about nicotine existed before the war on vaping. For example, research I conducted on college-student smokers more than a decade ago found that they attributed about a quarter of the total harm from cigarettes to the nicotine itself. But anti-vaping messaging is increasing the perception that nicotine is harmful.

The claim by survey respondents that they would be less likely to quit smoking should be seen as uninformed cheap talk. They presumably have never tried smoking very-low-nicotine cigarettes, which they might indeed choose to quit because they are unsatisfying. The whole point of FDA’s policy is to lower the quality of the products and thus reduce the benefits of smoking. Though cloaked in rhetoric about reducing “addiction” (whatever that means in this context), imposing such a rule has never been anything more than a step toward prohibition. As with most prohibition, the most likely outcome would be a thriving black market in proper cigarettes, along with perfection of do-it-yourself methods for adding the nicotine back to the legal ones (quite possibly using e-liquid).

The ultimate irony is that this research result would sink the low-nicotine cigarette if a manufacturer were proposing it as a risk-reducing product. FDA demands that applicants demonstrate that a new product or message will not create health costs by causing the uptake or continuing use of products (something that is literally impossible to demonstrate). This result — as well as the prediction that people will smoke more to get enough nicotine — does just the opposite, affirmatively suggesting there will be health costs.

The result will not sink the proposal, of course, because FDA is notorious for not playing by its own rules. The proposal is FDA’s pet project, motivated by creeping prohibition, the long-time obsession with the idea by a handful of influential individuals, and perhaps some corrupt influence of those who will benefit financially. As such, it is unlikely to be slowed by any evidence. But the new results, and probably more like them, will certainly get prominent play when manufacturers object to the proposal and, if it gets that far, challenge it in court.

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Carl V. Phillips