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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration aims to reduce nicotine levels in cigarettes while exploring measures to move smokers toward e-cigarettes, in a major regulatory shift announced on Friday that sent traditional cigarette company stocks plunging.
The move means FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has thrown his regulatory weight on the side of those advocating for e-cigarettes in the debate over whether they potentially hold some public health benefits.
Shares of major tobacco companies in the United States and UK slumped in heavy trading volume, with the world's biggest producers poised to lose about $60 billion of market value.
The FDA's move extends the timeline for applications for new e-cigarette clearance by the FDA to Aug. 8, 2022, giving e-cigarette companies more time to keep their products on the market before the agency goes into the process of final review. It also gives the FDA more time to set the proper framework for regulating e-cigarettes.
"It’s hard to overstate what this could mean for the companies affected: non-addictive levels of nicotine would likely mean a lot fewer smokers and of those people who do still light up, smoking a lot less," said Neil Wilson, a senior market analyst with ETX Capital in London.
"This is just the U.S. regulator acting but we can easily see others, particularly in Europe, where regulatory pressures are already extremely high, following suit," Wilson said.
British American Tobacco shares, trading close to all-time highs, fell as much as 11 percent and were on track for their biggest one-day loss in nearly 18 years.
Altria, which makes the Marlboro brand of cigarettes, fell as much as 16 percent, slipping into the red for the year.