Where there’s smoke, there’s not always fire, and the FDA seems to understand that could make all the difference, at least when it comes to people’s health. It’s dangerous to assume much when a federal agency announces its long-term plans, but there appears to be a good deal of common sense in the Food and Drug Administration’s recent announcements regarding cigarettes, nicotine, and vaping, which the FDA refers to as electronic nicotine delivery systems. Bureaucracies will be bureaucracies.

Still, we find it encouraging to see the FDA clearly state that nicotine, the addictive drug in tobacco, “is delivered through products that represent a continuum of risk and is most harmful when delivered through smoke particles in combustible cigarettes.” In other words, there are a number of ways to get your nicotine hit these days, but lighting up clearly causes the most damage to your health. As a result, the FDA is giving some breathing room to e-cigarettes and other devices that take the smoke out of smoking. The agency recognizes that vaping is not a risk-free activity — what is? — but is resisting the curious efforts of some anti-smoking crusaders to kill the vaping business. Cold turkey, anyone?

It seems wise to allow people a chance to get their nicotine without sucking down hot gases from burning leaves. Concerns about vaping as a gateway to nicotine addiction among young people are legitimate and the FDA intends to address them.

Plans to consider limits on the amount of nicotine in old-fashioned “combustible” cigarettes may be worth exploring but we suspect they’re a step too far — and could open a pack of unintended consequences. Smokers tend to regulate their own nicotine consumption, by inhaling deeper or by smoking more cigarettes. Studies are decidedly mixed on the benefits, if any, of so-called light cigarettes.

Altria, the Richmond-based tobacco giant, gave a prudently low-key response to the FDA announcement: “We supported FDA regulation because, among other things, it created a framework for communication about reduced harm products. ... The process outlined by the commissioner (Friday) will allow all stakeholders the opportunity to participate in a science and evidence based regulatory framework which is ‘transparent, predictable, and sustainable.’ “ Hard to argue with that.

Helping the public battle nicotine addiction is a worthy objective. But encouraging innovation about safer ways to satisfy the urge seems more promising than prohibitions on the amounts of nicotine allowed in traditional coffin nails. For now, the FDA appears to be steering a sensible course on cigarette regulation.

-The Richmond Times-Dispatch