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Tobacco Addiction Influenced by Cigarette Nicotine Content

Cigarette smoking is addictive due to the chemical nicotine found in tobacco. A new study assessed whether cigarettes with lower nicotine content had a reduced addiction potential in a group of individuals vulnerable to tobacco addiction.

At least 15% of adults in the United States of America smoke cigarettes, leading to almost 500,000 deaths each year. Smokers are more likely to develop heart disease, stroke and lung cancer than non-smokers. Therefore, cigarette smoking and tobacco addiction is a huge public health burden.

Cigarettes are detrimental to health due to their high tobacco content. Tobacco also contains a chemical called nicotine, which is a highly addictive substance. In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (FSPTCA) gave the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory authority over cigarettes and other tobacco products, allowing them to reduce the nicotine content of cigarettes in the hopes that it would benefit public health. If the nicotine content is set below a threshold dose necessary to sustain addiction, then smokers may be able to readily quit smoking.

Smoking is prevalent in individuals with psychiatric illnesses and socioeconomic disadvantages. A new study published in JAMA Psychiatry, assessed the dose-dependent effects of cigarettes with reduced nicotine content on tobacco addiction, in vulnerable populations.

In this multi-site, double-blinded study, researchers studied adults from three groups who are vulnerable to tobacco addiction: those with affective disorders, those with opioid dependence, and those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. They assessed individuals assessed after smoking cigarettes with a range of nicotine content from levels below a hypothesized addiction threshold, to those of a standard commercial cigarette. Researchers evaluated the addiction potential of these cigarettes.The results of this study showed that reducing the nicotine content of cigarettes decreased the reinforcing effects of smoking in all three populations. Therefore, the addiction potential of cigarettes with reduced nicotine content is much lower than current commercial cigarettes.

These results suggest that a national regulatory policy to reduce the nicotine content of cigarettes may greatly reduce levels of tobacco addiction, particularly in vulnerable populations. Additionally, this would greatly reduce the harmful effects of tobacco for human health. Cigarettes with lower nicotine content could be used to gradually treat tobacco addiction and allow individuals to slowly rely on lower levels of nicotine until they can successfully stop smoking. However, studies of extended exposure to reduced nicotine content cigarettes are needed to see whether low nicotine levels are sufficient to prevent tobacco addiction and to help lead to less tobacco dependence globally.

Written by Neeti Vashi, BSc

  1. Incorrect: Cigarettes are detrimental to health due to the fact that they are burned. It is chemicals such as carbon monoxide (created when something is burned) and particles of partially burned paper and tobacco that stiffen the arteries and clog the lungs. Additional toxic chemicals created by burning contribute to the increased risk of cancers associated with smoking. Recent research shows that western smokeless tobacco does not increase the risks of cancers, cardiovascular disease, or lung disease. Nicotine alone is no where near as reinforcing as nicotine combined with the MAO inhibitors in tobacco. This would explain the extremely low risk of new nicotine addiction associated with nicotine gum and lozenges and with nicotine-containing vaping liquids. Switching to low risk sources of nicotine could save millions of lives.


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