Cigarette smoking kills nearly a half-million Americans every year and costs the U.S. economy $300 billion in health care and lost productivity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To help smokers kick the deadly habit and stop kids from starting, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed rules Thursday to cut the nicotine in cigarettes to minimal or nonaddictive levels.

“This milestone places us squarely on the road toward achieving one of the biggest public health victories in modern history and saving millions of lives in the process,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Thursday.

He said the FDA has a “vision of a world where combustible cigarettes would no longer create or sustain addiction.”

Legal authority

The FDA has the legal authority to regulate nicotine levels in cigarettes, but has always been met by court challenges from tobacco companies.

Nicotine naturally occurs in tobacco. It is not deadly but is a highly addictive drug that helps make cigarettes so pleasurable to smokers.

It is the burning tobacco leaf and the numerous additives used in cigarettes that lead to lung cancer, emphysema, and other deadly diseases and cancers.

Secondhand smoke from cigarettes is also harmful to children and potentially lethal to adults.

Public comment

Gottlieb says the FDA is giving the public time to comment on the proposed mandated cuts in nicotine. He says it will help regulators answer such questions as what an acceptable level of nicotine is, whether the cuts should be introduced gradually or immediately, whether weaker cigarettes will bring on a black market for stronger smokes, and whether smokers will smoke more to compensate for the lower levels of the drug.

The New England Journal of Medicine reports that if the FDA cuts the nicotine to what it regards as a nonaddictive level, 5 million smokers would quit within one year. The Journal says by the turn of the century, the number of American adults who smoke cigarettes would plummet from the current 15 percent to a minuscule 1.4 percent, saving 8 million lives.