Marlboro-maker Altria Group Inc. wants to enlist an unlikely partner in convincing Americans that nicotine isn’t as bad as they think—its regulator.The company asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to tackle misperceptions about nicotine as part of a proposed US$100 million advertising campaign to reduce the harm caused by tobacco, according to a letter seen by Bloomberg News.
That could be difficult with about three-fourths of U.S. adults incorrectly believing nicotine causes cancer, Altria said in the communication, citing government research. Clearing up the drug’s health risks will be key to the agency reducing smoking because it will help convince cigarette users to switch to non-combustible options for nicotine, the company said.
While there are at least 60 well-established carcinogens in cigarette smoke, it’s been known for years that nicotine isn’t the direct cause of many of smoking’s ills. The drug has even been touted as a way to ease tension and sharpen the mind. But nicotine is the ingredient that addicts people to tobacco products, and it has risks, including possibly making people more susceptible to abusing opioids, according to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a government agency.
The FDA “should commit resources and expertise to correct the deeply entrenched public misperceptions regarding the health risks of nicotine,” Paige Magness, Altria’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs, said in the letter dated Feb. 25. Such a campaign would help the agency by getting more smokers to use non-combustible offerings that “may present lower health risk,” according to the letter.
The FDA declined to comment.
The stakes are high for Altria. The company still generates 8 per cent of its US$20.8 billion in annual revenue from cigarettes and cigars. With that heavily regulated market slowing, the company’s mantra has become what it calls “moving beyond smoking.” But that transition, which the rest of the tobacco industry has also embraced, could be derailed if there isn’t a regulatory blessing to promote these new product categories.
Altria is asking for help in an environment where marketing any product with tobacco or nicotine has been stymied by regulators. The FDA weighs in on what the company can say about the risk of its products only after scientific evidence is submitted.
The FDA does have the budget and marketing chops to reach the masses through its public education campaigns. But the agency uses much of those resources on targeting the health risks of products made by the likes of Altria. Its recent “Real Cost” ads say oral tobacco can cause mouth cancer, tooth loss, brown teeth and jaw pain, while “most vapes contain seriously addictive levels of nicotine.”
Altria has said that nicotine products without smoke are potentially less risky. It’s been asking the FDA to regulate with that in mind for more than a decade, according to the letter.
In the U.S., Altria sells IQOS, a smoke-free product that heats tobacco instead of burning it. The FDA has authorized it to be marketed as having less exposure to harmful chemicals than cigarette smoke, which is short of a full claim that it’s less harmful.
Altria also has a stake in Juul Labs Inc., which makes vape devices that let users inhale nicotine. Anti-tobacco groups and public health agencies, including the FDA, have remained wary of these products, saying that while they don’t have the known carcinogens of cigarette smoke, they may present other health risks that aren’t as well known. More recently, the company began selling an oral pouch that is free from smoke and tobacco with five levels of nicotine strength.
“Nicotine isn’t benign,” said Eric Lindblom, a former senior advisor to the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, and now a senior scholar at the O’Neill Institute, a health research group at Georgetown University. Studies show that it can interfere with brain development and birth outcomes, he said. “It’s an agricultural poison in large doses.”
However, pushing the FDA to help change nicotine’s reputation could benefit Altria’s fledgling reduced-risk offerings, according to Lindblom. The agency has suggested that it might lower the level of nicotine that can legally be used in combustible products, which could further taint the drug in the public’s mind.
“They’re a smart company,” Lindblom said. “They want a product line that can survive no matter what the FDA does.”