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The FDA just took a radical step to cut nicotine in cigarettes so they're not addictive

The agency is proposing new rules that could save millions of lives.

Cigarettes on sale. Staff/Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday announced a groundbreaking new plan to try to reduce the numbers of Americans killed by tobacco by lowering the nicotine in tobacco products like cigarettes so that they’re no longer addictive.

“Unless we change course, 5.6 million young people alive today will die prematurely later in life from tobacco use,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a statement. “Envisioning a world where cigarettes would no longer create or sustain addiction, and where adults who still need or want nicotine could get it from alternative and less harmful sources, needs to be the cornerstone of our efforts — and we believe it’s vital that we pursue this common ground.”

Smoking has long been the leading cause of preventable premature death and illness in the US, and is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths a year. Experts have been arguing since 1994 that lowering nicotine levels could curb addiction to tobacco products and reduce the associated deaths. A 2013 article by Kenneth Warner, a professor of public health at the University of Michigan, argued for the need for “radical ‘endgame’ strategies” like nicotine reduction in cigarettes “to eliminate the toll of tobacco.”

New rules to lower nicotine in tobacco products are the top priority in the FDA’s “multi-year roadmap.” But it also includes a pledge to look at the role of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products designed to appeal to youth, and the health impacts of smoking premium cigars.

The agency says its next step is to “issue this guidance describing a new enforcement policy” and then seek input from the public. Tobacco companies will without a doubt fight the FDA’s attempts to lower nicotine levels and the other new regulations on cigarettes in the works. According to Bloomberg, tobacco company shares fell precipitously Friday morning after the announcement.