Research has shown that reducing nicotine levels means people smoke less often. US regulators now want to shift people toward e-cigarettes.
US regulators proposed on Friday to reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes as part of plan to push people toward e-cigarettes instead.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said e-cigarettes were likely a much healthier alternative to regular smoking.
"Nicotine itself is not responsible for the cancer, the lung disease and heart disease that kill hundreds of thousands of Americans each year," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said.
"It's the other chemical compounds in tobacco and in the smoke created by setting tobacco on fire that directly cause illness and death."
Gottlieb said the agency would work toward making cigarettes minimally addictive or nonaddictive, while granting e-cigarette manufacturers an extra four years in the market without regulation.
The announcement pushed down shares of tobacco companies, but cigarette-maker Altria said it welcomed the move as an "important evolution" in regulation.
"We supported FDA regulation because, among other things, it created a framework for communication about reduced-harm products," the company said in a statement.
Reducing nicotine works
Researchers have found that reducing the nicotine content in cigarettes does lead to people smoking less often.
University of Pittsburgh researcher Eric Donny said researchers found smokers were less dependent on cigarettes and smoked fewer of them when the nicotine content was reduced by about 90 percent.
Scientists were still researching how often people who smoke lower-nicotine cigarettes switch to e-cigarettes or other, less harmful tobacco products, said Donny, who directs Pitt's Center for the Evaluation of Nicotine in Cigarettes.
Tobacco companies invest in e-cigarettes
Analysts said tobacco companies knew the move was coming and had built up their investments into e-cigarettes.
"We see this as an opportune entry point for long-term investors and would recommend building positions on today's broad weakness," Bonnie Herzog, an analyst at Wells Fargo Securities said in a research report, noting that the FDA is currently reviewing IQOS, a product from Altria Group Inc and Philip Morris International that heats tobacco instead of burning it.
Gottlieb promotes vaping
Gottlieb, a cancer survivor and physician, was confirmed as FDA Commissioner on May 9. He was long suspected to be friendly toward the e-cigarette industry given his previous financial interest in a so-called "vape" shop called Kure.
During an April hearing on whether to advance his nomination for the FDA position, he said some e-cigarettes may have the potential to wean smokers off combustible cigarettes and be less harmful.
Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable heart disease, cancer and death in the US, killing more than 480,000 people each year. Smoking rates, though, have been falling for decades and are at about 15 percent.
Vaping less toxic
A study published in February found that e-cigarettes were far safer and less toxic than smoking conventional tobacco cigarettes.
"Our study adds to existing evidence showing that e-cigarettes and NRT (nicotine replacement therapies such as gum or patches) are far safer than smoking, and suggests that there is a very low risk associated with their long-term use," said Lion Shahab, a specialist in epidemiology and public health at University College London who led the work.
At the time the British public health authority said the study proved that switching to e-cigarettes would save lives.
aw/tj (Reuters, AP, dpa)