Best Nicotine Fit

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Michael Siegel finds that the recent Massachusetts Department of Public Health report on rising nicotine yields in American cigarettes, which generated substantial press coverage and indignant editorials, was wrong in at least one important respect: The nicotine yields of cigarettes produced by industry leader Philip Morris, which the report said were on the rise, have in fact remained pretty much the same since 1997, the first year of testing using the Massachusetts method (which is thought to better simulate smoking than the "FTC method" used for the numbers in ads and on packages). By excluding data for 1997 and 2005, Siegel concludes, the MDPH created a misleading impression of rising nicotine yields, since nicotine levels in Philip Morris brands were unusually low in 1998 and dropped between 2004 and 2005. "There was actually a decline in the average nicotine yield of Marlboro cigarettes over the entire period 1997-2005, from 1.85 mg to 1.80 mg," Siegel writes.

In any case, as I noted after the report came out, there is nothing necessarily sinister about rising nicotine yields, which should, if anything, make cigarettes slightly less hazardous. Which means anti-smoking activists can now fault Philip Morris for failing to raise nicotine yields, which might have reduced smokers' intake of toxins and carcinogens.

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  1. I’ve always seen smokers regulate their dose by the cigarette, regardless of the strength.

    The smokers I’ve known are very much creatures of habit. They have the one before breakfast, the one with their coffee, the one on the way to work, the one in mid-morning, etc. And they judge the length of their break by the time it takes to smoke one, or two, cigarettes. It’s all very ritualistic.

    It just does’n square with my experience that someone with such a habit would start to smoke 85% of a cigarette at each break instead of finishing it just because it’s a little stronger, or that someone would not want to take a cigarette break that they’re used to having because they got a little more nicotine in each of their previous breaks.

    I agree with this logic when it comes to marijuana usage, because each “session” consists of a number of discreet “hits,” with the smoker decided whether or not to take the sixth (or whatever) hit based on how he feels after the fifth. This is what makes it so much easier for patients to regulate their dose from smoked pot than Marinol. But I don’t think it’s going to work that way with cigarettes’ because each hit is packaged with 8 or 12 other hits in a single cigarette, and people measure their dosage by the cigarette.

    Hey, cigarette smokers, am I totally off my rocker here?

  2. In a way you’re right, joe. However people also smoke cigarettes because of cravings, and such instances can be reduced by increasing nicotine level per cig, as is it would increase the time ellapsed since the last cigarrette to the next craving.

  3. joe – I think you’re right from the ritualistic POV, but I think that if the nicotine was slightly stronger, smokers wouldn’t get their cravings as quickly, and so might not be as disposed to smoking another one as quickly as they might otherwise.

    For a social smoker like myself, I can definitely see me smoking less in a night if there was a little more nicotine in each butt.

  4. Joe, here’s some anecdotal data: when I smoked, I smoked a name-brand cigarette that was usually sold in this “buy two packs get one free” deal. Sometimes, though, the store would be sold out, so I’d buy a pack of cheaper off-brand cigarettes. But eventually I stopped doing that, because I noticed that with the off-brand cigarettes, even though they didn’t taste as good as my regular ones, I always wanted to smoke more. One off-brand cigarette didn’t satisfy my cravings the way one name-brand cigarette could, which I’m guessing is because the off-brand had less nicotine.

    Oh, and the off-brand cigarettes were 100s, whereas the name-brand “buy two get one free” were regulars. So one (short) name-brand cigarette was more satisfying that one (longer) off-brand cigarette.

  5. Thanks for the responses, guys.

    Mr. Sullum, do you know anything about the duration of nicotine in a person’s system? Does it spike and drop off? Would a stonger dose cause a noticeably longer duration, or just a higher spike?

  6. agree with this logic when it comes to marijuana usage, because each “session” consists of a number of discreet “hits,”

    Or so you’ve heard.

  7. Hey, I’m hip to you kids. I know the lingo.

    I’ve got my tea shades.

  8. I roll my own cigarettes, and I smoke a lot less because it’s a pain in the ass.

  9. Joe, the half-life of nicotine in the bloodstream is around two hours. A higher nicotine content would produce a higher peak and a longer period during which nicotine was above the level to which a smoker was accustomed, which should mean less frequent smoking, since cravings are correlated with nicotine blood levels. Note that smokers can also adjust their intake by changing the number of puffs per cigarette, inhaling more or less deeply, and holding the smoke for longer or shorter periods of time. Since studies indicate that smokers change the way they smoke in response to lower nicotine yields, it seems plausible that they would change the way they smoke in response to higher nicotine yields.

  10. Since studies indicate that smokers change the way they smoke in response to lower nicotine yields, it seems plausible that they would change the way they smoke in response to higher nicotine yields.

    It may be plausible, I am not sure, but is not a contradiction to believe otherwise, which you seemed to imply in the earlier post:

    On one hand, the activists fault tobacco companies for marketing their cigarettes with misleadingly low tar and nicotine numbers that don’t take into account the tendency to compensate for reduced nicotine by smoking more cigarettes or smoking more intensely (covering ventilation holes, taking more puffs per cigarette, inhaling more deeply, holding the smoke longer). On the other hand, the activists assume smokers don’t compensate for higher nicotine levels by smoking fewer cigarettes or smoking less intensely.

    I wrote this at the time, but came aboard at the end after the discussion had fizzled out:

    “The activists can be real nutjobs at times, but I really don’t see a contradiction here… If a smoker wants at least x units of nicotine then a low tar/nicotine cigarette will result in behavioral changes to reach x. If the level is increased then the smoker might just gladly go along for the ride. x – n = behavioral change, x + n = hey, these are good, man! Gimme some more of that!”

    In the case of a sudden, large increase of nicotine per cigarrette, it certainly does seem more plausible to believe that people would smoke less. But if the nicotine levels were increased gradually, as is claimed by some, then couldn’t the situation I describe be true?

  11. I would absolutely love a super-nicotine stubby little cigarette.

    I love nicotine, but I don’t really love smoking tobacco. Not big on chewing on gobs of it to get high either.

    FWIW, I smoke a couple of butts a day. I also run five days a week, five plus miles a day – another reason I don’t like to smoke a lot.

  12. But if the nicotine levels were increased gradually, as is claimed by some, then couldn’t the situation I describe be true?

    In that case, yeah I can see smokers “going along for the ride” and smoking the same amount – and gradually building a higher tolerance/need for nicotine, or they will smoke gradually less for the reasons debated above. In no way would I see this causing them to smoke more, because (regular) smokers don’t smoke to get high – they smoke to stave off the craving.

  13. Since studies indicate that smokers change the way they smoke in response to lower nicotine yields, it seems plausible that they would change the way they smoke in response to higher nicotine yields.

    Jacob, I love the way you wrote that. You did it exactly like a practicing scientist would. You referred to data, made it clear that the data has only been collected under certain conditions, and then offered a hypothesis that is consistent with the data.

    I know I’ve been pretty mean in my criticism of other writers on this site, but I swear I’m not trying to be over the top here or make any implicit comparisons or anything. I just love coming across a journalist who can write like a scientist. And do it succinctly.

    I also like the way that you know exactly when to argue from data and when to argue from principle. It’s a tough skill to master, especially when one believes strongly in a particular set of principles. Again, I swear I’m not trying to drive home any point here about anybody else.

    It’s probably because I’m in the middle of writing a research article, so I’m having to walk the line between what is already known and what we hypothesize, and make sure that I only make statements that are fully supported by my calculations. I recognize the writing style because it’s what I’m struggling to put down on paper right now.

    Back to it.

  14. That seems plausible, Jacob.

    “I would absolutely love a super-nicotine stubby little cigarette.”

    The could call them Kool-spressos.

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