Low-nicotine cigarettes: The best way to get millions to quit, or a pipe dream?

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Six leading tobacco policy experts have proposed mandating that the nicotine in cigarettes be reduced to levels that aren t addictive. Writing in Tobacco Control, the co-chairs of the National Cancer Institute s Tobacco Harm Reduction Network and others argue that denicotinized, non-addictive cigarettes could reduce smoking levels from 23 percent to 5 percent.

"Reducing the nicotine in cigarettes to a level that is non-addicting could have a profound impact on reducing death and disability related to cigarettes and improving overall public health, says the paper's lead author, Dorothy Hatsukami, Ph.D., director of the University of Minnesota s Tobacco Use Research Center.

This does not make sense to me at all, says ACSH s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. The reality is when you reduce the nicotine, smokers compensate by inhaling more deeply, taking bigger drags so they can get their nicotine fix. And as a result, they get more of the products of combustion, which is really what s harmful about smoking.

Anticipating this argument, the researchers say studies have found that reducing nicotine in cigarettes doesn t lead to people smoking more cigarettes, because it s harder to compensate for very low levels of nicotine. But ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross doesn t buy that. Asserting that smokers won t smoke more cigarettes to get the nicotine they crave is a fairy tale, he says. The article has over 100 references, but nothing supporting the absurd hypothesis that over the long-term, smokers won t seek more of the nicotine they crave by increasing frequency and depth of inhalations. The likely result is a major increase in cigarette-related diseases. Further, the authors have a well-documented aversion to a possibly effective cessation method: smokeless tobacco for harm reduction, which is not mentioned in their disclosures.

Dr. Whelan notes that the authors also made no mention of e-cigarettes, a clean nicotine delivery system that lets users avoid the harmful products of combustion.