FDA's Low-Nicotine Cigarette Scheme Is an Invitation to Black Market Vendors

People will find sources for what they want no matter what presumptuous regulators say.


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Technically, the Food and Drug Administration's new proposal "to lower nicotine in cigarettes to minimally or non-addictive levels" isn't an exercise in prohibition. Cigarettes would still remain available—but they wouldn't be the product that smokers had in mind. Instead, they'd be a substitute foisted on them by their self-identified betters.

This sort of not-quite prohibition isn't new, and it's guaranteed to have very familiar consequences.

In a statement linked to the FDA's advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb asks "What unintended consequences—such as the potential for illicit trade or for addicted smokers to compensate for lower nicotine by smoking more—might occur as a result?"

I'm glad he asked.

Low-nicotine cigarettes sound an awful lot like the 3.2 percent beer that plagued much of the country after Prohibition. Nobody was happy with the diluted swill, and they tolerated it only if they couldn't smuggle in something better. Most places have since dumped it, indicating that a taste for the unadulterated product remained strong even after years of restrictions. "Colorado has already changed their liquor laws and will permit stronger beer to be sold in grocery stores beginning in 2019, leaving only three states (Utah, Kansas and Minnesota) with laws mandating these low alcohol 'baby beers' that even the majors have less interest in brewing for them," reports American Craft Beer.

There's no particular reason to think that smokers will be happier with denatured tobacco than drinkers have been with weak beer.

Gottlieb has said "the FDA has a science-based obligation that supersedes popular trends and relies on evidence." Such stiff-necked sincerity is swell, but it can't make people like having their choices constrained by professional scolds.

We've seen clear consequences of efforts to constrain choices in states where marijuana is newly legalized. It turns out that when you try to replace illegal markets with overtaxed and highly regulated legal ones, you throw a lifeline to underground dealers.

"Pot black market still thrives after Colorado legalization," PBS reported in 2014 after the state introduced a hobbled form of legalization. "An ounce of pot on the black market can cost as little as 180 dollars," according to correspondent Rick Karr. "At the store Andy Williams owns, you have to pay around 240 dollars for an ounce. That's partly because the price includes a 15 percent excise tax, a 10 percent marijuana tax, the state sales tax, and Denver's marijuana sales tax."

California officials are seeing similar results in their overregulated and overtaxed new non-medical marijuana market. Three months into a very tepid legalization, sales from legal vendors remain slow as "high taxes, complicated regulations and a thriving black market are having deleterious effects," according to the Sacramento Bee.

Federal policies making it dangerous for financial institutions to transact with newly legal (at the state level) marijuana dealers also work to keep black markets alive. "[S]tate marijuana commerce will stay as black a market as bootlegged rum during Prohibition until banks find ways to operate under restrictive financial laws stemming from the Controlled Substances Act," the Alaska Journal of Commerce noted.

Tobacco isn't all that different a product than alcohol or marijuana, and the burdensome taxes and regulations under which the stuff is sold have already created healthy opportunities for smugglers and bootleggers. "Excessive tax rates on cigarettes approach de facto prohibition in some states, inducing black and gray market movement of tobacco products into high-tax states from low-tax states or foreign sources," says Scott Drenkard of the Tax Foundation which, with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, tracks cigarette smuggling on an ongoing basis.

Under existing rules, an estimated 56.8 percent of cigarettes consumed in New York come from illegal sources. Enforcement efforts are as brutal in this black market as any other—Eric Garner was choked to death by New York City police officers in a confrontation rooted in his status as a dealer of black market cigarettes.

So, what's the chance that the FDA's latest brainstorm in substituting regulators' preferences for those of consumers will end up any differently than previous experiences with alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco? Why would low-nicotine smokes find a less-resistant audience than 3.2 beer, or heavily regulated marijuana, or highly taxed cigarettes?

FDA Commissioner Gottlieb's proposal to mandate low-nicotine cigarettes looks an awful lot like other well-intentioned but presumptuous efforts to substitute the will of regulators for the desires of the public—it's Prohibition Lite. And like all such efforts, it's likely to get people turning up their noses and looking for something better.

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  1. Even worse it will force people to smoke more to get their nicotene fix. Which makes these cigarettes even more dangerous, because the health risks come mostly from the burning, not the nicotene. But of course the cigarette companies love it because it will force people to buy more death sticks.

    As for the high taxes, I recently got recreational weed in LA and the experience was excellent. Yes there was a ton of security to get in, but otherwise it was an easy experience. The tax is 24%, which is high, but it’s easy enough to get a doctor’s note if you really want one. I prefer to pay the tax than having to make up a story about ‘anxiety’ for an internet quack and I only wish they did that with all drugs. As for the argument that the tax instigates a black market, I don’t buy it because I think it’s mostly a cultural thing where you decide to buy your drugs.

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    2. They will inhale all the more deeply – which is how cigarettes became coffin nails in the first place. Mastermind governments somehow devolve towards implosion, led by “good intentions” like this. Just more proof that our framers feared do gooders as much or more than kings – kings let up once in a while, but the do-gooders never leave the people alone.

      1. “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

        – C.S. Lewis

    3. Exactly: It’s already well established that smokers adjust the amount they smoke to get the same amount of nicotine.

      This proposal isn’t just science free, it’s anti-science.

      And it’s not just the burning. Chewing tobacco will cause cancer, too. Just handling the leaves can cause skin diseases. Tobacco is a remarkably nasty plant, with the nicotine actually being its only redeeming characteristic…

      1. It’s actually the curing process that makes oral tobacco so bad. There are types that are cured at lower temperatures which are not associated with significant risk of oral cancers.

  2. Commissioner Scott Gottlieb asks “What unintended consequences?such as the potential for illicit trade or for addicted smokers to compensate for lower nicotine by smoking more?might occur as a result?”

    Filling our jails prisons and gulags with druggies and drug dealers and blowers on cheap plastic “lung flutes” where said blowers do NOT have a prescription, is NOT enough! We need to ALSO fill our jails prisons and gulags with cigarette smugglers!!! (Bonus = we can have cops strangle to death, more black folks for selling single piece-meal cigarettes on the street).

    “Unintended consequences” my bleeding butt-fucked ass!!! My descriptive paragraph above is NOT unintended by Government Almighty and its cops-prisons-therapists-judges-lawyers-industrial complex!!! This is a FEATURE, not a BUG, dammit!!! Whatever brings more POWAH to Government Almighty is what they WANT, and consequences (to the peons) be damned!

    1. I think you give them too much credit. Government bureaucrats don’t think that far ahead. They see their own good intentions, and that is it. Nothing more. Anything that happens contrary to their good intentions, no matter how obvious it is to you and me, is a surprise to them.

      1. Good Occam’s/Hanlon’s Razor application, notwithstanding your user name.

        Why can’t we just allow CMS and the private carriers to exclude lung disease from all health insurance for people who smoke after today? Or let them be in their own risk pool?

    2. “bleeding butt-fucked ass”

      Thanks for that imagery. I’m totally gonna steal it.

    3. Other than the bleeding, are you having trouble controlling your stools? I’ve been wanting to experiment and was just wondering.

  3. Vice laws have caused nothing but government waste, people wasting money on legal fees, and black markets.

    1. Yet you can’t see the corollary to immigration… aka the ban on willing, cheap labor? Banning it has had the exact same effect.

      1. Labor is different because the U.S. government also says it’s illegal to hire below ‘x’ wage which is literally designed to keep immigrant labor out of the labor pool with or without immigration reform.

        The useful retards go full-bore immigration tirade, but those in the know realize labor policy itself will keep them out regardless of if they’re ‘allowed’ to come here in the first place.

        And yes, you can thank Progressives for that. It’s a bit ironic that Progressives claim they’re pro-immigration when the last century of policy they’ve endorsed is explicitly hostile to immigrants.

        1. “Labor is different because the U.S. government also says it’s illegal to hire below ‘x’ wage”

          And yet it still happens? How else would all “dem illegulz” be “takin’ er jerbs”? The fact that there are off-the-books hirings in the US and illegal immigrants holding jobs in the US suggests that cheap labor is not really different than the other vices that government tries to control, in that the secondary “black” markets will still provide if government tries to regulate the supply side of the equation.

          The government says it’s illegal to buy certain drugs, or buy cigarettes or alcohol below a certain age, or buy guns if you’re a felon, etc… Yet… all those things still happen on secondary markets because the benefits to the 2 parties involved in transacting these items outweigh the costs. The same is true for employers and the illegal immigrants that they hire.

    2. But they feed the compulsion for righteous indignation and morally superior dictatorship.

  4. I think I know where this product is headed: folks will smoke with one hand, and vape with the other. Oh, joy… we can still access the 3000 additives including highly carcinogenic benzine compounds, all FDA approved.
    Forgive my sarcasm, and a little disclosure: gave up cigs when they were banned on airtravel, but love a good cigar.

    1. You don’t have to vape, just sprinkle a few drops of the vaping fluid on the low-nicotine cigarette and you’ve got a regular cigarette. Or a lethal dose of nicotine if you’re not careful, but hey, it’s those dead smokers own fault for OD’ing as a consequence of going against Nanny Government’s Guiding Fist O’ Compassion. .

      1. When you have government forcing unpopular products on Americans, you get unsafe products on the market.

        1. What do you get when a website is late with the lynx?

          1. Angry Tulpa, and that’s it.

          2. Carpal tunnel syndrome.

            You’ve got to find something else to do with the interwebs and idle time.

      2. You’re way, way off base on how much pure nicotine is needed to actually kill someone. You can drink a bottle or two of vape juice straight, no chaser, and you’re not in serious danger.

  5. This won’t impact my monthly cigarette truck run from low tax states into NY State.

    Thanks NY and you tyrannical cigarette schemes that makes me a killing in black market cigs.

    1. It’s all gravy, until you get choked to death for selling loosies.

      1. I sell by the carton case, so no loosies.

      2. I didn’t know lc1789 was a black guy!

        1. I’m pretty sure the black version would be loveconstitution1865

    2. Virginia thanks you for your business.

  6. addicted smokers to compensate for lower nicotine by smoking more

    This is more consequential than the black-market stuff. It’s basically the government pressuring you to smoke more. And since I know they’re not stupid, they must be doing it for a reason. Hm… sweet, sweet tax dollars?

    1. And since I know they’re not stupid…

      Assuming facts not in evidence.

      1. The do evil things that harm their consituents but help themselves. That doesn’t make them stupid. I always go with evil over stupid. Even the obviously stupid ones do evil things because they’re evil.

        1. Evil is a weird thing. I don’t think many who we think of as evil really consider(ed) themselves to be evil. Even that German dude who took eugenics to its logical conclusion thought he was doing what was best for his people. He honestly didn’t understand why people hated him.

          Because of this I go with stupid (or short sighted) first. Most people don’t think things through. They see their grand intentions and what they want to happen, and that’s it. Then when things don’t happen as planned they look for the Mystery Machine and those meddling kids. They won’t even entertain the idea that their wonderful intentions are paving the road to hell.

          1. I don’t care how they see themselves. I care what their actions do.

            1. To me evil implies some sort of ill-intent.

              1. Of course evil people don’t see themselves as evil. But the ill intent is there. Just because they have convinced themselves they aren’t evil doesn’t make it so.

        2. Hey, evil and stupid are far from mutually exclusive.

    2. Sounds about right. To get people smoking more, tobacco companies have made their contributions and lobbied the FDA to promote a product that gets more chain smokers. That should carve 1% out of GDP, as smokers will lurch for break every 15 minutes while on the job. And you’re right: with more chain smokers, tax coffers get boosted. This idea of low nicotine cigs is a public menace – tobacco is what it is, unless… it has been tampered with so much that the FDA gets full control, and takes the T out of ATF. Once that happens, add another $4 to a pack of cigs.

    3. Hm… sweet, sweet tax dollars?

      I see someone was paying attention during the Clinton administration.

  7. It’s like “skinny girl” alcohol and light beers. The lower alcohol level just means you drink more to get the same feeling. You don’t wind up actually consuming fewer calories.

    Also, I don’t know how cigarettes are made, but I believe that nicotine is an entirely natural chemical that comes straight from the tobacco, and the nicotine itself, while highly addictive, isn’t all that dangerous to your health.

    I would think it would be more important to get all the additives and other shit they put in there out. That would probably have a much greater impact on health, but I’m guessing it would also make cigarettes harder to keep together or taste good.

    1. I’ve often wondered if the companies put any research into making them safer. I wouldn’t be surprised if the FDA prohibited it. It’s obvious they don’t give a shit about people’s health.

      1. They did, and the FDA did. Since it’s the tobacco, and not the nicotine, that’s causing most of the health problems, the tobacco industry tried marketing cigarettes that had nicotine and no tobacco.

        The FDA put a stop to it by calling them “drug delivery devices”, and requiring prescriptions.

        1. Consider the FDA’s attempt to destroy the vaping market.

    2. My ex bought a bottle of “skinny girl” booze one time. Even she couldn’t drink it. It tasted like someone opened up a bunch of those non-sugar sweetener packets and mixed them into some perfectly good booze, ruining it.

      1. It is just watered down crap booze. All of the calories in hard alcohol are in the alcohol itself. Their vodkas just have 30% alcohol instead of 40%.

        1. That and enough Splenda to kill a small rodent.

    3. I remember 3.2 beer bars in college. We had to work hard to get a buzz, and then spent half our time pissing in the men’s room.

      1. Flush twice… It’s a long way back to the bar, for that yellow fluid!

    4. Since sometime in the 1970’s the governm nt has required the cigarette companies to have unrealisticly fine measurements of niccotine and tar levels, so the process of manufacture involves removing both from the tobacco and then putting controled amounts back in.

    5. Actually there is very little evidence that nicotine is addictive. It’s always been assumed to be because nicotine has mild, pleasant and generally positive effects for the user comparable to caffeine. It’s hard to find clinical study of the addictive potential of nicotine but their have been numerous studies of the potential benefits. None of the study participants have reported having become addicted. This proposal is not based on any science, only dubious assumptions. And aside from possibly increasing demand for cigarettes, sales of which have been in serious decline with the advent of vaping, it is unlikely to benefit anyone.

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  9. I have an idea! Let’s tell the government to concentrate on core issues like maintaining the roads and delvering the mail. All these do-gooder crusades distract from issues that actually ARE some of the government’s beeswax.

    Also, they usually involve complex and subtle issues and governments are bad at complex and worse at subtle.

  10. So they want to take out the only redeeming parts of a cigarette to leave the parts that have almost all of the negative health effects, like cancer, emphysema, etc. (Yes, nicotine can affect the heart, and it’s addictive, but it’s also fueled a lot of good literature. You can probably track the rise of hacks bland writing with the reduction in nicotine use.)

    Well, at least they are clear in their priorities. Control of the population is more important than actual public health. Not unlike their attempts to pretend that vaping is the same as smoking, even when almost all of the most dangerous elements are missing.

  11. Wont this just cause people to smoke more cigarettes, and consequently get exposed to even more carcinogens, to get the same amount of nicotine. Now that I right this out, it sounds like a great way to sell more cigarettes.

  12. It’s not Gottlieb’s proposal. It’s being proposed by the agency over his warning, a rulemaking in the works since before he got there.

  13. It’s not funny how the last time ANTZ (Anti-Nicotine/Tobacco Zealots) pushed light cigarettes they found out smokers smoked more. It was a conspiracy by Big-Tobacco. Now the ANTZ are back to the SOS and when it doesn’t work out how they want I’m sure they’ll blame Big-Tobacco again. And the sheep will follow happily.

  14. Cigarettes are already small cigars, which also means less nicotine. And cigarettes are far more addictive. With tobacco it seems the milder you make it, the more addictive it becomes because it is easier to make a habit. What are these new low nicotine sticks going to be called? Cigaretteettes?

  15. Tobacco paid for the 1775 Revolution. it didn’t have a dozen additives but it paid for the weapons of the Continental Army. legalizing THC shouldn’t be balanced by prohibiting nicotine.

  16. Tobacco paid for the 1775 Revolution. it didn’t have a dozen additives but it paid for the weapons of the Continental Army. legalizing THC shouldn’t be balanced by prohibiting nicotine.

  17. Studies have shown regardless of the variety of cigarette smokers manipulate them to produce the amount of nicotine desired. They may draw deeper, rip off the filter, smoke more, etc. etc.. – all potentially more harmful behaviors. Wouldn’t surprise me if the tobacco industry were pushing this to sell more cigarettes.

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