June 22, 2022

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

The Biden administration says it is writing a plan that will order cigarette makers to cut cigarette nicotine levels to lower addiction. It is part of Biden’s plan to cut cancer deaths by 50% in 25 years.

But don’t expect the order to take effect quickly — perhaps for years or maybe ever. (See coverage from The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.)

First, there is the regulatory requirement that the Food and Drug Administration publishes the rule, invites public comments then publishes a final rule. Then, almost certainly, tobacco companies will sue to stop it. That could tie up the regulation for years.

If all of this sounds familiar to you, that’s because the FDA made a similar proposal in 2017 that the Trump administration shelved. There have been serious discussions about this idea since 1994. Those proposals would have meant a long-term and gradual reduction in nicotine levels, over a decade or more, that would have slowly weaned the public from nicotine.

The notion behind the order is that if cigarettes contain less nicotine, then cigarettes become much less addictive, fewer young smokers who experiment with smoking would become addicted, and there would be fewer addicted adult smokers. Those who are addicted would find it easier to quit, according to the theory.

Tobacco companies have been on the legal ropes for years. In 1998, tobacco companies agreed to tone down advertising and stop offering free samples and then paid $200 million to states to pay for health care needed because of tobacco-related illnesses.

The CDC says nearly a half-million Americans die each year from smoking-related illnesses. The American Cancer Society says that tobacco use is the No. 1 cause of preventable deaths in the United States.

But why control nicotine when the FDA says nicotine itself does not cause cancer? Nicotine is the chemical that causes addiction to cigarettes. The Wall Street Journal points out:

Nicotine levels in cigarettes can be reduced in different ways. Manufacturers can adjust the blend of tobacco leaves or use different types of paper or filters. Nicotine can also be stripped from the leaf in the manufacturing process. One company uses genetic engineering to grow tobacco with 95% less nicotine than a typical tobacco plant.

Lowering nicotine in cigarettes has been a subject of discussion inside the FDA since the 1990s. In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act authorized the FDA to mandate such a change—with the stipulation that the policy be based on scientific evidence, a caveat that slowed the process for years.

FDA officials have said reducing nicotine in cigarettes to very low levels would prevent future generations from becoming addicted to cigarettes, and prompt current smokers to quit.

This is the section of the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act that gives the FDA the authority to order companies to reduce nicotine. The act says:

In the event that the Secretary makes a determination, set forth in a proposed tobacco product standard in a proposed rule, that it is appropriate for the protection of public health to require the reduction or elimination of an additive, constituent (including a smoke constituent), or other component of a tobacco product because the Secretary has found that the additive, constituent, or other component is or may be harmful, any party objecting to the proposed standard on the ground that the proposed standard will not reduce or eliminate the risk of illness or injury may provide for the Secretary’s consideration scientific evidence that demonstrates that the proposed standard will not reduce or eliminate the risk of illness or injury.

In other words, for tobacco companies to fight such restrictions, they would carry the burden of proving that lowering nicotine would not reduce or eliminate the risk of illness or injury to the smoker, which would be difficult for them to prove.

How much nicotine is non-addictive? That is a tough question, researchers say, because humans have different thresholds. Researchers Neal L Benowitz and Jack E Henningfield — pioneers in this field — write:

Currently, most manufactured cigarettes contain 10–15 mg of nicotine per cigarette. On average, smokers systemically absorb 10% of the nicotine contained in the rod, with a typical systemic intake of 1–2 mg of nicotine per cigarette. We made an initial estimate that reducing the total nicotine content of cigarettes to 0.5 mg per rod would minimize the addictiveness of cigarettes. It was assumed that these doses would not produce psychoactive and rewarding effects, but such effects might occur at lower doses in non-tolerant children and adolescents.  A more recent analysis suggests that the maximum allowable nicotine content per cigarette that minimizes the risk of central nervous system effects contributing to addiction may be lower.

One argument against the order to reduce nicotine is that it could make smokers more likely to smoke more to satisfy their craving, and the more they smoke, the worse it is for their health. Researchers found that when smokers gradually reduced their nicotine intake per cigarette they did not tend to smoke more. And, the same researchers said, people who had nicotine addictions could more safely wean off nicotine using heavily regulated patches, gums and other nicotine delivery systems.

Would a nicotine ban lead to big demand for contraband smokes? It might.  Those researchers, Benowitz and Henningfield, wrote:

There is a possibility that decreased access to the forms of tobacco that addicted users most want, namely nicotine-containing cigarettes, will increase the demand for contraband cigarettes. Even if this occurred, it is difficult to envision that such a massive scale of contraband could emerge so as to rival the present pipeline of cigarettes that, for example, numbers more than 1 billion per day in the USA, delivered to tens of thousands of retail outlets. The greatest antidote to mass contraband is likely to be a combination of increased access to treatment and alternative products and education.

Tobacco’s political power

Tobacco companies still wield considerable political clout in Washington.

Go here to see the top tobacco company contributors to political parties and candidates. According to Open Secrets, the top recipients of tobacco political contributions include both Republicans and Democrats.

(Open Secrets)

Could a federal gas tax pause and student loan forgiveness be in your future?

High gas prices are shown in Los Angeles, Thursday, June 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

President Joe Biden says he will make a decision by the end of the week about whether to order a pause in federal gasoline taxes. The gas tax costs 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel fuel. Five states — Maryland, Georgia, Connecticut, New York and Florida — have suspended state gasoline taxes. Some of those temporary freezes expired or will expire soon. Others, like the gas tax suspensions in New York and Florida, will happen late summer into early fall.

Congressional Democrats introduced the Gas Prices Relief Act in February but it has gone nowhere so far.

There are serious questions about whether gas tax holidays help or hurt the country in the long run. Reducing the price at the pump encourages people to drive more and does nothing to address the underlying issue of supply. CNET points out:

There’s also a question of how much a gas tax holiday really saves drivers: If the federal gas tax was suspended for the rest of 2022, according to Kiplinger, a motorist who drives 12,000 miles a year in a car that averages 25 miles per gallon would save about $70.

It would cost a reported $20 billion in lost tax revenue, though, meaning less money for road repairs and other infrastructure projects at a time when President Biden’s Build Back Better plan has seemingly run out of gas.

IGEN documents how state gas taxes line up:

  • The state with the highest tax rate on gasoline is Pennsylvania at $0.576 / gallon followed closely by California at $0.511 / gallon.
  • The highest tax rate on diesel is $0.741 / gallon again from Pennsylvania.
  • Meanwhile, the highest tax rate on aviation fuel is Massachusetts at $0.308 / gallon.
  • DC has the highest tax rate on jet fuel at $0.235 / gallon.
  • The state with the lowest tax rate on gasoline is Alaska at $0.0895 / gallon followed by Hawaii at $0.16 / gallon.
  • The lowest tax rate on diesel is $0.0895 / gallon also from Alaska.
  • Oklahoma claims the lowest tax rate on aviation fuel at $0.0008 / gallon. Oklahoma also enacts the lowest tax rate on jet fuel at the same rate of $0.0008 / gallon.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal says the president will decide within a couple of months whether he supports forgiving at least some outstanding federal student loans, possibly up to $10,000 per person. The current moratorium on student loan repayments ends Aug. 31, so the president’s decision would be timed to that deadline.

The Federal Reserve Board ran the numbers and found 11.8 million borrowers, or almost a third of federal loan borrowers, would have their loans completely forgiven if Biden set the forgiveness rate at $10,000. In all, it would mean $321 billion wiped off the books. The most talked-about plan would apply to people who earn less than $150,000, or $300,000 for couples who file jointly. By the way, there is some disagreement about whether the president could do this all by himself or whether it would take an act of Congress.

CNN conducted some polling around this issue and found:

About half of Americans, 49%, think the US government is doing too little to address student loan debt, according to a CNN Poll conducted by SSRS in late April and May, with 24% saying that the government is doing too much, and the remainder that the current approach is about right. For comparison, 81% say the government is taking too little action on inflation.

A majority of Democrats (56%) — and an even wider majority of self-described liberals (69%) — say the government is doing too little on student loan debt, according to the CNN poll, while only a third of Republicans and self-described conservatives alike say the same. Seventy percent of adults younger than 35 say the government is doing too little, a figure that drops to 50% among those in the 35-49 age bracket, and 35% among those age 50 or older.

There are also racial and income-based divides: Six in 10 of people of color say the government is doing too little, compared with 42% of White Americans who say the same. And 57% of those in households making less than $50,000 annually want to see more government action, compared with 42% in higher-earning households.

Other polls have shown different levels of support for student loan forgiveness. Last August, an Axios-Ipsos poll found 55% of Americans said they supported “forgiving, or erasing, all federal student loan debt.” That is significantly more than Biden is considering. When Grinnell College researchers asked questions about student loan forgiveness, the public favored forgiveness for those in need more than for everyone. And in that poll, 29% said they opposed loan forgiveness no matter the need.

As long as COVID fatalities do not rise, America seems willing to endure higher infections

COVID-19 infections just keep rising, but COVID-19 deaths from those infections are about one-third lower than a year ago. The virus, for now, is causing milder symptoms, and that may have a lot to do with our rising immunity level caused by both vaccinations and previous infections.

It is true, researchers tell The New York Times, that infections among the fully vaccinated are rising.

In Arizona, for instance, the share of Covid cases being recorded in vaccinated people grew to 60 percent in April from 25 percent five months earlier.

There are a number of possible reasons that Covid deaths have not fallen even further. With infection levels so high and few precautions being taken, the virus is inevitably reaching people who are more vulnerable because of their vaccine status, age or underlying conditions. And even as some people gain immune protection during the pandemic, others become more susceptible to bad outcomes as they age or develop weakened immune systems.

The country’s stagnant booster campaign has also left many older people at a long distance from their last shot and so vulnerable to the effects of waning immunity.

Bird flu wanes, but will likely be back in the fall

A sign is seen at the Milwaukee County Zoo showing the bird exhibits are closed to protect against bird flu Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The bird flu, which led to the deaths of 40 million chickens and turkeys, is finally waning, but experts say it will likely return when bird migrations begin again in the fall. The virus is one of the factors driving up egg and poultry prices. But even at 40 million birds destroyed, The Associated Press says that represents “6% of the chickens raised to produce eggs, 2.5% of turkeys and less than 1% of the chickens raised for meat.” The bird flu also killed eagles and other species.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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