The FDA is Considering a Cigarette Regulation that Could Have 2 Deadly Consequences

Mandating lower nicotine content in cigarettes would likely have unintended consequences that far outweigh any benefit—and could even prove lethal.

Cigarettes are bad for your health. But government meddling can be, too.

That reality isn’t stopping the Food and Drug Administration from possibly embarking on its latest public health regulatory crusade. New reports reveal that the Biden administration is considering mandating a decrease in the amount of nicotine in cigarettes in hopes of reducing addiction.

“The Biden administration is considering requiring tobacco companies to lower the nicotine in all cigarettes sold in the U.S. to levels at which they are no longer addictive,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “The nicotine-reduction policy under consideration would lower the chemical in cigarettes to nonaddictive or minimally addictive levels, aiming to push millions of smokers to either quit or switch to less harmful alternatives such as nicotine gums, lozenges or e-cigarettes.”

The goal behind this proposal is both clear and benevolent. Nicotine is an addictive substance, and cigarette smoking is bad for your health, increasing the risk of lung cancer, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. By limiting nicotine addiction and thus cigarette smoking, the FDA undoubtedly hopes this rule would save lives. But as is so often the case with nanny-state regulatory proposals, mandating lower nicotine content in cigarettes would likely have unintended consequences that far outweigh any benefit—and could even prove lethal.

1. More Smoking Means More Cancer

Millions of Americans are addicted to nicotine, and an FDA mandate isn’t going to change that. Were the amount of nicotine in cigarettes lowered by law, many people would respond by smoking more total cigarettes to get their nicotine fix. Because it is tar and other carcinogenic substances in cigarettes that cause cancer—not the nicotine itself—this would likely mean more cases of lung cancer and more premature deaths. 

Yes, some might respond by reducing their consumption or switching to alternatives, but given how addictive nicotine is and how ingrained smoking is as a habit for many people, it seems nearly certain many people would respond by smoking more, not less. As a result, the FDA’s well-intentioned rule would make our lung cancer problem even worse.

2. Black Market Products Could Be Dangerous and Even Deadly

While pre-pandemic life does sometimes feel like a distant memory, you might remember the great panic over “vaping deaths” in 2020.

Mysterious lung illnesses resulting in at least 33 deaths were initially linked to e-cigarette use, also known as vaping. But studies and closer examination revealed that legal vaping products, already in use for years with no recorded deaths, weren’t to blame. Almost all of the cases of illness and death were eventually traced back to black-market THC products used in vaping, unsafe products that only emerged because marijuana is still illegal in most of the United States. 

Something similar could happen with traditional cigarettes if the FDA’s nanny-state rule goes through.

Many smokers won’t be happy with the new weak cigarettes for sale at legal storefronts and may turn to black markets to buy stronger stuff. Because black market dealers have little business accountability or oversight, there’s a greater chance that the products could be laced with dangerous substances or dangerously made. 

In short, more people could die needless deaths from black-market purchases gone wrong.

Unintended Consequences Inevitably Plague Nanny-State Interventions

Were the FDA’s rule to backfire in these ways, the fiasco would, unfortunately, just be par for the course. It’s typical for unintended consequences—sometimes deadly—to plague big government interventions into the minutiae of daily life.

Why?

“Every human action has both intended and unintended consequences,” economist Antony Davies and political scientist James Harrigan explained for FEE.org. “Human beings react to every rule, regulation, and order governments impose, and their reactions result in outcomes that can be quite different than the outcomes lawmakers intended.”

The tobacco industry is no exception.

The FDA’s Good Intentions Won’t Make Up For Its Deadly Results

As economist Robert P. Murphy put it, “It’s not enough... to endorse legislation that has a nice title and promises to do something good. People need to think through the full consequences of a policy, because often it will lead to a cure worse than the disease.”

I don’t doubt the good intentions of the FDA bureaucrats and Biden administration officials considering this rule. But intentions matter little when results are potentially deadly.