Low-Nicotine Cigarettes Do Not Lead to Increased Smoking, Study Finds
According to the CDC, smoking causes of 480,000 deaths in the United States each year. This is ultimately due to nicotine addiction, and it’s why reducing the numbers of smokers by helping them combat their addiction is essential. There have been many approaches suggested to accomplish this goal, and a recent study has identified a potential for help from an unlikely source: cigarettes, but with reduced nicotine. Finding out more about this study and other research conducted into the same area helps you understand the role (if any) that low-nicotine cigarettes may play in reducing smoking addiction.
The researchers studied 72 adult smokers with the aim of determining whether it would be useful for the FDA to limit the amount of nicotine in cigarettes, or whether “compensatory” smoking (consuming more cigarettes to obtain more nicotine) would make the approach counterproductive. The participants smoked cigarettes with different nicotine levels for four successive weeklong periods, starting with their usual brand (ordinarily around 1.2 mg of nicotine per cigarette), before moving progressively down through 0.6 mg, 0.3 mg and 0.05 mg nicotine emission cigarettes. They knew how much nicotine was in the cigarettes they were smoking, though, so this was “non-blinded” research. Their level of nicotine dependence, withdrawal symptoms, smoking behavior and markers of cigarette exposure were assessed for each weeklong period.
Less Nicotine Doesn’t Cause Compensatory Smoking
The results were fairly surprising: even though nicotine is the core addictive component of cigarettes, being given reduced nicotine cigarettes didn’t lead to smokers consuming more cigarettes, suffering from greater urges, smoking more intensely or becoming more dependent on smoking. Nicotine intake was reduced significantly when smokers were using the 0.3 and 0.05 mg cigarettes, but not when they used the 0.6 mg cigarette. The researchers found that exhaled levels of carbon monoxide didn’t increase when smokers switched to the lower-nicotine cigarette, nor did levels of 1-hydroxypyrene. The researchers argue, “The study adds to the evidence that cigarettes with markedly reduced nicotine content are not associated with increased smoking intensity or exposure to smoke toxicants.
Existing Evidence on Low-Nicotine Cigarettes
According to the results of this study, reducing the nicotine in cigarettes would reduce nicotine intake among the population of smokers and thereby reduce levels of addiction. However, it’s important to think about what this means in practice, not to mention looking at the results of other research conducted on the same topic.
You may have noted that the exposure to toxic components didn’t increase as a result of switching to low-nicotine cigarettes, but they didn’t decrease, either. The individuals may not have been taking in as much nicotine, but most of the risk for health problems related to smoking comes from the other toxicants. If low-nicotine cigarettes eventually led to quitting or even reduced numbers of cigarettes consumed, they would be a benefit to health. However, according to these findings, there was no change in nicotine dependence, and smoking continued at the same intensity. In other words, smokers would still be addicted and would still be consuming deadly cigarettes.
A bigger issue with the finding is that it contradicts not only common sense (nicotine is the addictive component in cigarettes, so you’d expect “compensatory” smoking if it were reduced) but also some other findings on the same issue. Studies using a blinded design (where smokers didn’t know how much nicotine was in the cigarettes they smoked) have found the opposite result: people do smoke extra to “compensate” for the lost nicotine, and in the process expose themselves to greater levels of toxic chemicals.
Although the new finding appears positive, when thought about in more objective terms it still isn’t a good thing (since the exposure to toxic chemicals and level of addiction remains unchanged) and it also contradicts other findings. These specific participants may have consumed less nicotine, but they’re still consuming nicotine and they’re still exposing themselves to carcinogens and harmful chemicals.
Getting Help and Quitting Smoking
Stopping smoking is like overcoming any addiction. There are psychological triggers (such as stress) and external cues (a friend having a cigarette, for example) that lead smokers to light up, and only by identifying these and learning healthier ways to cope in these situations can smokers overcome addiction. Like with other addictions, counseling or other psychological treatment is extremely valuable, but it isn’t an “overnight” solution. It takes work to quit smoking, and although it would be nice if we could limit the nicotine in cigarettes and eventually eradicate nicotine addiction, it doesn’t seem to be quite that simple.
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