Study says less nicotine may scale down smokers

Those who smoke reduced-nicotine cigarettes are more likely to attempt to quit.

by Kristina Busch

Using low-nicotine cigarettes could help smokers quit their habit.
A study published earlier this month, in part conducted by University of Minnesota researchers, reported that people smoked 23 to 30 percent less each day if their cigarettes contained about 15 percent or less nicotine than traditional cigarettes. Still, a rising trend of e-cigarette use could ease first-time smokers into smoking the real thing.
The research reflects a hypothesis made 20 years ago by Dr. Neal Benowitz, a professor of biopharmaceutical sciences, psychiatry and clinical pharmacy at the University of California-San Francisco and a researcher on the study.
He and his colleagues predicted cigarettes containing nicotine levels of 0.5 mg or lower — compared to traditional levels of 15.8 mg — could be considered nonaddictive. Instead, researchers discovered that these cigarettes are still habit-forming, although the study found people would smoke them less often.
University of Minnesota psychiatry professor and researcher on the study Dorothy Hatsukami said previous studies testing ultra-light and light cigarettes showed nicotine consumption didn’t decrease.
Though their packaging claimed a reduced level of nicotine, small ventilation holes in the ultra-light and light cigarettes could be covered up to keep the smoke from escaping, she said.
Smokers could also inhale deeper to increase their nicotine intake, Hatsukami said.
This study, on the other hand, tested cigarettes with less tobacco, making it harder for smokers to consume more nicotine, she said.
“The reason why substances are so addictive is because you can quickly pump the drug into your body and experience some benefits from it,” said assistant professor of medicine Dr. Abbie Begnaud. “So if a person realizes that smoking is not giving them the right benefits that they wanted to get from the drug, then they become less inclined to smoke.”
Smokers who smoked reduced-nicotine cigarettes were more likely to attempt quitting smoking than smokers who smoked traditional cigarettes, according to the study.
Still, a person’s social life and comfort in their daily routine could deter them from dropping the habit, Begnaud said. 
“For many people, smoking is just a habit; they have been smoking for years and years and weaved it into the fabric of their daily life,” she said. “There are also a lot of psychosocial aspects of smoking. If all of your buddies smoke together and taking a smoke break is your social hour, if you stop smoking, you miss out on that social time.” 
Begnaud said quitting early could help smokers avoid long-term health effects like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disease that causes difficulty breathing and lung cancer.
Going electronic
A new trend in switching traditional cigarettes for e-cigarettes and vaporizers has become prevalent among millennials despite a lack of evidence those devices are safer, said Regional Senior Director of the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest Pat McKone.
“We do not have enough information about e-cigarettes or vape-pens to determine whether they are a healthier alternative or if they have serious long-term effectives that could be detrimental to health,” she said.  
Because cigarette smoke and particles are the most damaging effects of smoking, Begnaud said, she doesn’t think e-cigarettes or vaporizers — which also produce harmful vapors — are healthier for the lungs.
She said experts in tobacco-related health care are concerned the increased marketing of cigarette replacements like e-cigarettes will lead young smokers to eventually switch to traditional cigarettes.
“Even though there are strict laws against traditional cigarettes advertising to children, there are no laws against electronic nicotine devices,” Begnaud said. “These devices have all kinds of flavors that look appealing to children, so these people could start smoking really young.”