Nicotine in cigarettes is set to be cut to non-addictive levels for the first time after American regulators unveiled radical plans aimed at reducing the number of smokers, in a move hailed by British health experts as having “international significance”.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has launched a landmark consultation to restrict nicotine levels, citing the “overwhelming” levels of death cigarettes cause. Although the FDA move will only affect cigarettes sold in the US, British health experts welcomed it.
Research has suggested cigarettes would have to be made 30 times weaker to effectively become non-addictive.
The development is a bad one for the global tobacco industry, with estimates the largest producers could lose around $60 billion (£46 billion) in market value.
Announcing the move, Scott Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner said it would “begin a public dialogue” on introducing more regulations, saying cigarettes are the “only legal consumer product that, when used as intended, will kill half of all long-term users”.
“Unless we change course, 5.6 million young people alive today will die prematurely later in life from tobacco use.” Among the plans, the FDA said it would also be looking to make it easier for less harmful nicotine products to enter the market and said it “must also recognise potential for innovation”.
Prof Linda Bauld, professor of health policy at the University of Stirling, said: “These long-awaited plans have international significance. They suggest the US may be the first country in the world to require product standard for cigarettes that include reducing nicotine to non-addictive levels.”
In the UK, 2.6 million people currently use e-cigarettes. They are now the most popular way for Brits to quit smoking. Sales of cigarettes have been declining in recent years, with figures released by the Office for National Statistics last month showing the number of UK adults who smoked fell 17 per cent between 2015 and 2016. Today, less than a third of Brits smoke cigarettes regularly.
Financial experts concurred that the US rules appeared to trigger a very significant shake-up for the industry.
“It’s hard to overstate what this could mean for the companies affected: non-addictive levels of nicotine would likely mean a lot fewer smokers and of those people who do still light up, smoking a lot less,” said Neil Wilson, a senior market analyst with ETX Capital in London.
“This is just the US regulator acting but we can easily see others, particularly in Europe, where regulatory pressures are already extremely high, following suit.”
Shares in British American Tobacco fell 6.8 per cent to finish 362p lower, wiping £5.8 billion off its market value. Imperial Brands saw its shares end the day down 130.5p.