Flawed Logic in Latest Nicotine Study

American Legacy Foundation claims majority supports reducing nicotine in cigarettes

Melissa Vonder Haar, Freelance Writer

WASHINGTON & BOSTON -- Last week, The American Journal of Public Health released a study suggesting a majority of Americans would support a federal mandate to lower the amount of nicotine in cigarettes. Conducted in June of 2010 by the Washington-based Schroeder Institute (a part of the American Legacy Foundation), the survey found that 46.7% of adults agreed the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) should act on the issue.

"This data could be helpful to FDA in gauging public sentiment and tailoring its messaging if the agency chooses to move forward with such regulation," said the study's lead author Dr. Jennifer Pearson, research investigator for the Schroeder Institute. "This study shows us that such measures could be acceptable to a large number of Americans."

However, the survey results didn't actually show a majority of Americans support lowering nicotine in cigarettes. While 46.7% of respondent were in favor of such a move, the majority actually opposed or had no opinion on the subject (16.5% opposed, 37.8% neither agreed nor disagreed). 

In fact Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University of Public Health, found several red flags in the Legacy study, including the notion that public opinion should factor into the FDA's regulatory process.

"The FDA should be making decisions about regulating products based on scientific analysis and policy considerations," Siegel told Tobacco E-News. "Would it be relevant to ascertain and discuss what percentage of the public believes that the FDA should ban Vioxx, require a black box warning on Chantix or approve a certain drug for use? This is a scientific and policy matter, not an issue of public opinion."

Another issue is whether reducing the amount on nicotine would actually be effective. "It is not clear that lowering the levels of nicotine will have a positive effect on the public's health," said Siegel.

And while Pearson claims "nicotine reduction could be a promising tool to protect the population from the harm and death caused by tobacco products," Siegel said he believes it could actually have the reverse effect. Because the FDA only has the authority to lower the amount on nicotine in cigarettes (as opposed to ban it all together), Siegel said lowering nicotine "could actually backfire if it triggers compensatory smoking and causes smokers to smoke more."