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FDA commissioner: Safer tobacco products can provide 'satisfying levels of nicotine' to people who want it

  • "We've opened up a pathway to new product innovations that we think can potentially provide nicotine to people who still want to enjoy satisfying levels of nicotine," FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb says.
  • "It's not the nicotine that kills you, it's all the other carcinogens in lighting tobacco on fire," he adds.

The Food and Drug Administration has provided options for companies to offer safer alternatives to cigarettes, so people can still enjoy "satisfying levels of nicotine" without the risks of tobacco smoke, the agency's commissioner told CNBC on Thursday.

"We've set out a plan to try to reduce nicotine levels to nonaddictive or minimally addictive levels to transition people off combustible cigarettes," said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, FDA commissioner.

"And at the same time, we've opened up a pathway to new product innovations that we think can potentially provide nicotine to people who still want to enjoy satisfying levels of nicotine without the risk of lighting tobacco on fire," he added in an interview on "Squawk Box."

Late last month, the FDA announced a plan for tobacco and nicotine regulation, to the surprise of some tobacco companies, with the goal of encouraging the development of new products that are less dangerous than cigarettes.

Tobacco stocks fell on the agency's announcement but in response to the news, tobacco company Altria said it plans to be "fully engaged throughout the process." A British American Tobacco spokesperson told CNBC then that the company's Reynolds American unit was "encouraged" by Gottlieb's comments.

In order to prod innovation, the FDA said in August of this year that it has "extended timelines to submit tobacco product review applications for newly regulated products that were on the market as of August 8, 2016."

The agency also said it planned to begin a "public dialogue" surrounding lowering nicotine levels by way of "achievable product standards."

"It's not the nicotine that kills you, it's all the other carcinogens in lighting tobacco on fire," Gottlieb said Thursday.

Gottlieb said smoking rates continue to decline in the U.S. but slowly. About 480,000 people in the U.S. die per year from smoking-related illnesses, he said, and cigarettes will kill half of all long-term users.

The FDA has said it would consider an exemption for what it calls premium cigars, and will consider a delay in implementing new rules for reduced-risk offerings like e-cigarettes.

Vaping devices and e-cigarettes that were on the market in August 2016 won't be subject to review until 2021 or 2022, depending on the type of product, the agency said.

The FDA must put e-cigarettes and vapes through an appropriate series of regulatory gates, Gottlieb said Thursday, but the products have the potential to be safer than combustible cigarettes. Still, the use of e-cigarettes by youth is concerning, Gottlieb said. He said it is "unclear" if e-cigarettes are a gateway to other forms of smoking.

Gottlieb said the FDA would consider regulating "kid-appealing flavors" in e-cigarettes and cigars, and possibly banning menthol in all tobacco products.

But there are also a number of other alternatives hitting the market, Gottlieb said.

"Heat not burn. ... Also medicinal nicotine products," he said. "There could be product innovation around those as well to deliver the nicotine in better ways," he said.

— CNBC's Lauren Thomas and Reuters contributed to this report.