A new study might help the push for regulations to limit nicotine in cigarettes. Smokers who switched to special low-nicotine ones wound up smoking less and were more likely to try to quit, researchers found.
The study only lasted six weeks, and researchers call the evidence preliminary. But they say it’s the first large study to show that slashing nicotine, perhaps below an addiction threshold, is safe and leads to less smoking.
The Food and Drug Administration was given the power in 2009 to mandate lower nicotine levels if it would help public health, but has not yet done so.
“This, I think, provides support” for lowering nicotine, said one study leader, Dr. Neal Benowitz of the University of California, San Francisco.
“What our study shows is that it’s feasible,” and that people won’t smoke more regular cigarettes to compensate, he said.
Results are in the New England Journal of Medicine. The FDA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse paid for the study. Two study leaders have advised companies that make smoking cessation aids, and two testified in tobacco lawsuits.
Smoking is a leading cause of heart disease and cancer. Tar and other substances inhaled through smoking make cigarettes deadly, but the nicotine in tobacco is what makes them addictive.
Some earlier work suggests they might not be if nicotine was limited to roughly 0.7 milligrams per gram of tobacco. Most cigarettes contain around 15.8 milligrams per gram of tobacco. There are no lownicotine cigarettes on the market; the government made special ones with several lower nicotine levels to test.
“We wanted to see how much lower it would need to be to see that effect,” where dependence did not happen or was diminished, said another study leader, Dr. Eric Donny, a University of Pittsburgh psychologist.
For the study, about 800 people who smoked five or more cigarettes a day and had no interest in quitting were assigned to smoke either their usual brand or an experimental type with nicotine ranging from a low of 0.4 milligram to 15.8 milligrams, the level in most cigarettes.
The cigarettes were provided for free, and no one except people assigned to keep smoking their regular brand knew how much nicotine any of their smokes contained.
Smokers had to report daily how much they smoked and to make 10 office visits, some of which included tests to measure nicotine exposure and dependence. They were paid $20 an hour or so for the visits and extra for completing tests and daily calls.