The tobacco industry says it's ready to reduce harm

Key Points
  • The FDA announced in July it would start the process of lowering nicotine content in cigarettes to non-addictive levels
  • Debra Crew, CEO of Reynolds American, foresees a race to innovation
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Technology presents the tobacco industry with an enormous opportunity to continue to give smokers their desired nicotine, but in a less harmful way, said Debra Crew, CEO of Reynolds American.

"If we can put a man on the moon, we can deliver tobacco to people with less risk than smoking," Crew said in a speech at the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum in New York on Wednesday. She likened Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb's new tobacco initiatives to President John F. Kennedy's quest to put a man on the moon. Gottlieb's vision, like Kennedy's, can be a leap for mankind, she said.

Gottlieb announced in July the FDA would start the process of lowering nicotine content in cigarettes to non-addictive levels. It also said it would delay implementing new rules for reduced-risk products like e-cigarettes.

Crew said Wednesday that the industry is ready to meet the challenge and expects to see increased innovation.

In a separate speech at the conference, Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, said the revised timeline gives the agency the best chance to encourage innovation of products that are less harmful than conventional cigarettes.

Zeller recapped comments from the tobacco industry dating back decades regarding the dangers of cigarettes and the role of nicotine.

The public health debate around harm reduction has been "stunningly unproductive" and one that has been in a "complete and total stalemate" over decades, Zeller said.

"This is an opportunity to use what the FDA announced as a chance to reframe a very, very important debate that's been going on in tobacco control circles for decades and has not really resulted in progress or common ground," said Zeller in an interview with CNBC.

Zeller added, during his presentation, that there is "no way" the FDA can execute its plan on its own.

"What we do is not a spectator sport. It's a participatory sport," he said. "This is an opportunity for those who care and are interested to play and not just sit on the sidelines and watch."

Crew also acknowledged industry and government needs to work together to make progress, in her remarks.

The tobacco industry applauded the FDA for acknowledging that nicotine products fall along a "continuum of risk" in its July announcement. Cigarettes produce most of their toxic chemicals when they undergo combustion, or in other words, when they are lit.

"Nicotine lies both at the heart of the problem, but also potentially in the sweet spot of the solution," Zeller said.

Big Tobacco companies have been developing nicotine products that are supposedly safer than cigarettes. The tobacco industry markets them as safer alternatives for adult smokers who want to continue smoking. The FDA recognizes these products' potential.

Philip Morris International announced Wednesday at the conference it would pour $80 million a year for 12 years into a foundation that wants to eradicate cigarette smoking, but does not oppose people transitioning to alternative nicotine products like Philip Morris' IQOS heat-not-burn system.

Derek Yach, who crafted the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, is leading the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. He said he was initially skeptical of whether people would actually shift from cigarettes to alternatives like e-cigarettes. His position has since changed.

"If we can get the message out that most smokers want to quit but can't. Not because they have weak wills, but they're dependent to a product, behavior or chemical," he said. "If we're able to reduce the harmful contents of cigarettes, smokers will be able to continue with nicotine at a substantially lower risk and continue to live a healthy life."

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids president Matthew Myers called Philip Morris' foundation nothing but a smokescreen to divert attention from the company's practices and products. The company's efforts can't be taken seriously as it continues to market cigarettes and fight anti-smoking policies, he said in a statement.

"Until Philip Morris ceases these harmful activities, its claims should be seen as yet another public relations stunt aimed at repairing the company's image and not a serious effort to reduce the death and disease caused by its products," Myers said.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Mitch Zeller's opinion regarding the industry's efforts. The story also was updated with additional information from an interview with Zeller. )