The announcement thrilled the e-cigarette industry, which was facing a deadline of next year for makers to seek approval to sell any product that entered the market after Feb. 15, 2007.
“Without this delay, over 99 percent of vaper products available on the market today would be banned next year,” said Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, which is an advocate for the industry, in a statement that was almost certainly an exaggeration.
The Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association posted the commissioner’s remarks on its website. “Absolutely, it’s a good thing,” said Ray Story, the chief executive and founder of the organization. “When you look at harm reduction, it’s a no-brainer.”
Makers of tobacco cigarettes were warier because the F.D.A. said it would seek public input on a move to lower nicotine levels in combustible cigarettes to nonaddictive levels. Shares of cigarette makers tumbled after the morning announcement, but the companies issued careful statements in support of the F.D.A.’s move.
Shares of Altria, the maker of Marlboro and other brands, fell about 19 percent, its biggest decline within a trading day in 18 years, before partly recovering. The company called the F.D.A.’s announcement “an important evolution in the agency’s approach to regulating tobacco products and a meaningful step forward in developing a comprehensive regulatory policy that acknowledges the continuum of risk.”
Shares of another cigarette maker, British American Tobacco, fell. The company, which owns R. J. Reynolds, said it looked forward to “participating in a thorough process to develop a comprehensive plan for tobacco and nicotine regulation.”
Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States. E-cigarettes are less harmful than tobacco cigarettes because they do not contain deadly tar. They instead provide the nicotine fix smokers crave through a liquid that is heated into vapor and inhaled. Although it is the nicotine that hooks the smoker, it is the other chemical compounds in tobacco and tobacco smoke that pose direct health hazards.
The F.D.A. will encourage companies to reduce nicotine levels in tobacco products to less addictive levels, Dr. Gottlieb said.
“The science of nicotine regulation, and understanding what the addictive level is, is well established,” Dr. Gottlieb said. “There is a threshold level below which cigarettes probably wouldn’t be addictive.’’
Whether tobacco companies will come aboard, and when, is hard to say. “It’s important to understand that any proposed rule such as a nicotine product standard must be based on science and evidence, must not lead to unintended consequences and must be technically achievable,” Altria said in an email. It added, in a remark that will surely please tobacco industry lobbyists, “We intend to be fully engaged throughout this process.”
While granting e-cigarette makers a reprieve from some regulations, Dr. Gottlieb said, the F.D.A. will redouble its efforts to protect children from products that contain nicotine, including e-cigarettes, and will pursue regulations of flavored tobacco products designed to appeal to them. E-cigarettes come in many fruit and alcohol flavorings to appeal to “vapers” of all ages, with names like Tutti Frutti and Cupcake.
Public health advocates were cautiously optimistic. Matthew L. Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called Dr. Gottlieb’s agenda a “bold and comprehensive vision, with the potential to accelerate progress in reducing tobacco use and the death and disease it causes.’’
At the same time, Mr. Myers criticized the delay given to e-cigarette and cigar companies for complying with previously released rules. In a statement released Friday afternoon, Mr. Myers added, “This long delay will allow egregious, kid-friendly e-cigarettes and cigars, in flavors like gummy bear, cherry crush and banana smash, to stay on the market with little public health oversight. There is no reason to allow these products to stay on the market while developing and implementing the strategy Dr. Gottlieb outlined today.”
Dr. Gottlieb said he was prepared for criticism from people in the public health field. He said the F.D.A. needed time to develop solid regulations, rather than just guidance, on how the agency would use its oversight to regulate tobacco and e-cigarette products.
“I’m hopeful that people who follow this issue closely and might have a particular point of view are going to recognize what we are trying to do, to have a significant public health impact,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t say we are encouraging people to use e-cigarettes, but certainly we’d like to see smokers use F.D.A.-approved cessation packages like gums and patches.’’
Dr. Neal Benowitz, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, has had many discussions over the years with the F.D.A.’s tobacco chief, Mitchell Zeller, about trying to reduce the nicotine levels in tobacco. He said he was pleased to read Friday’s announcement, but felt cigarette makers would not move willingly to reduce nicotine.
“Philip Morris, many years ago, did try to market a low-nicotine cigarette, and there was no commercial market for it,” Dr. Benowitz said.
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