A report released by the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania has documented that low-nicotine and very low-nicotine cigarettes may increase carbon monoxide exposure among smokers and thus may present a greater health risk.
The report reviews the results of studies which evaluated Quest cigarettes - a product which uses genetically modified tobacco to reduce nicotine levels. In the studies, cigarettes with nicotine yields of 0.6, 0.3 and 0.05 mg were compared.
The report first documented that smokers do compensate by increasing their puff volume when smoking very-low nicotine cigarettes.
More importantly, the report documented that among smokers who do compensate by increasing their puff volume, there was an average of a 300% increase in carbon monoxide boost, indicating greatly increased exposure to carbon monoxide.
The report also documents that smokers tend to interpret low-nicotine claims as implying a safer cigarette. For example, 45% of smokers incorrectly inferred that Quest cigarettes are lower in tar. This despite the fact that the smokers were given information indicating clearly that Quest cigarettes do not reduce tar exposure.
The report concludes that the findings of these studies "provide behavioral and biochemical evidence for the possibility of compensatory smoking with a new low nicotine product, supporting the potential for increased, rather than reduced, harm."
"Second, they suggest that many smokers make false inferences about the relative safety of these cigarettes based on the product’s advertisement. If a new cigarette is misperceived as less harmful, it may attract smokers who would otherwise have quit or reduced smoking. Further research is needed to assess how Quest® cigarettes may divert smokers from more effective ways to reduce their harm from tobacco, including trying to quit smoking."
The Rest of the Story
These findings underscore the absurdity of public health groups' support for the proposed FDA tobacco legislation. They document that there is in fact no scientific basis to believe that reducing levels of nicotine or other specific constituents in cigarettes could or would produce a safer cigarette. More importantly, they demonstrate that substantial harm to the public's health would be done by requiring cigarette companies to lower nicotine levels or levels of other specific toxins. Not only would this likely result in increased exposure to other harmful constituents in the smoke, but it would also mislead smokers into thinking that cigarettes are safer, thus diverting smokers from more effective ways of reducing the harm from tobacco, namely: quitting.
It is important to note that a cigarette with 0.05 mg of nicotine is essentially a nicotine-free cigarette (in fact, that's how Quest is being marketed). However, such a cigarette was documented to increase toxic carbon monoxide exposure by 300% in smokers who compensate by increasing their puff volume in response to the reduced nicotine yield.
It is also important to note that these studies grossly underestimate the degree of compensation that would occur in actual life. These studies ask smokers to simply try Quest on one occasion. Compensation is a process that takes a period of time. If smokers were to smoke Quest for a period of weeks or months, it is likely that not only would their puff volume increase, but their cigarette consumption would increase as well.
Given the increased carbon monoxide delivery of these nicotine-free cigarettes, it would not be surprising to see clinical harm done to smokers if the effects of Quest were studied for any substantial length of time.
Clearly, it would be inappropriate for Vector Tobacco to market Quest as a safer cigarette. If Vector made any claims that Quest was a safer cigarette, I can assure you that anti-smoking groups would immediately blast the company and call for FTC to ban that advertising. I'm sure that the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids would be at the front of the pack (as they should).
The insanity of the proposed FDA regulatory scheme is that this is precisely what the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids now wants the FDA to do. And it is a pipedream to think that the FDA would do something as substantial as requiring a nicotine-free cigarette. This is in fact the best case scenario.
The rest of the story is that in actual practice, as documented by scientific evidence, even a 0.05 mg (nicotine-free) cigarette has been documented not only not to be safer, but to actually pose an increased potential harm to smokers by virtue of a drastically increased delivery of carbon monoxide to smokers who compensate in order to try to maintain constant levels of nicotine dosage.
Moreover, smokers misinterpret the rather clear marketing information and infer that the product reduces tar delivery and is a safer product. This would likely result in increased cigarette consumption and divert smokers from quitting.
Essentially, the FDA legislation would make one major change: instead of the cigarette companies defrauding the American public by making them incorrectly think that extremely low-nicotine, low-nicotine, and low-tar cigarettes are safer, it would be our own government. And in fact, that would essentially be their mandate.
It is truly beyond me how any anti-smoking or public health group could support this legislation.
One thing is for certain: the anti-smoking groups sure do not let the science get in their way.