Big Tobacco Heralds a Healthier World While Fighting Its Arrival

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Many opponents have challenged the F.D.A.’s legal authority to regulate tobacco products in far-reaching ways. But no matter how the companies promote their position, industry critics say that their goal is to maintain the lucrative share of the cigarette market at all costs. No wonder: Sales in the U.S. totaled $65 billion in 2021 —- one-third of it from menthol — dwarfing sales of e-cigarettes.

“It’s absolutely false that they want to have their smoking customers quit or shift to less harmful tobacco products,” said Eric Lindblom, a senior scholar at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University and a former adviser to the F.D.A. “If they were serious about having smokers quit, they would stop opposing any efforts at the federal, state and local level to regulate and tax smoking tobacco products more sharply.”

Traditional cigarettes have become more expensive, though. A study published this year in JAMA found that from 2015 to 2021, the number of packs of cigarettes sold in the United States fell to 9.1 billion a year from 12.5 billion, a 27 percent drop. To compensate, tobacco companies increased prices — rising 29.5 percent a pack during that period, to $7.22 from $5.57.

Inflation plays a role, too. In the first nine months of this year, Altria reported a steep 9 percent decline in sales volumes, with executives noting that customers were changing behaviors to save money, like buying single packs of cigarettes, rather than cartons.

Company share prices have also fallen.

“Most investors knew new regulation was coming, but the threat seemed far into the future,” said Christopher Growe, an analyst at financial services firm Stifel Financial. “I think menthol has more immediacy, but nicotine regulation is a long, long way away.”

On some level, the battle over menthol and nicotine limits extends the government’s efforts to chip away at smoking, even as the industry resists at every turn. But this moment is also fundamentally different. For the first time, many public health officials have embraced a strategy of harm reduction, which is not just to curb the cigarette market but to accept and even advocate for an alternative with e-cigarettes.

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