Skip to navigationSkip to content

There is a point at which smokers of low-nicotine cigarettes will stop trying to make up for what’s missing

Packs of Marlboro cigarettes are displayed for sale at a convenience store in Somerville
Reuters/Brian Snyder
Addictive stuff.
By Zach Wener-Fligner
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Nicotine, the main active ingredient in tobacco, is highly addictive. So to make it easier to quit smoking, just lower nicotine levels in cigarettes. Right?

Researchers have long held that it’s not so simple. Smokers who switch to “lights” or “ultra lights” often end up blazing through more cigarettes or puffing harder to manually adjust their nicotine intake, resulting in more exposure to carcinogenic smoke. This creates a policy puzzle: how can nicotine levels be lowered without further harming smokers’ health?

The answer is to cut nicotine even more, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Waterloo.

The study followed 72 smokers for four weeks. The first week, the participants followed their usual smoking habits. Each of the following three weeks, they were given progressively weaker Quest brand cigarettes, which use tobacco that is genetically modified to have less nicotine than either regular or “light” cigarettes.


People didn’t smoke significantly more often or more intensely when they switched to the Quest brand, even as their nicotine yield dropped. (Participants went through an average of 20 cigarettes per day when smoking their own brand, and 20.3 per day when smoking the weakest Quest blend.) The researchers suspect that’s because the drastically weakened cigarettes would make “compensating” too much work. “Given low-enough levels of nicotine, people give up,” says David Hammond, the lead author of the study.

It must be noted that more than a quarter of the study’s participants confessed to cheating with other cigarettes when they first switched to the Quest brand. And the cheating rate rose as the nicotine yields dropped: 31% of participants admitted to having a lapse while smoking the Quest 2 blend, and 44% cheated when they were supposed to be sticking to the Quest 3 blend. But the lapses were relatively minor; for each phase of the study, the number of extra cigarettes the cheaters smoked on average could be counted on one hand.

No country regulates nicotine levels in cigarettes (the US Food and Drug Administration has had the power to regulate nicotine in cigarettes since 2009, but has not exercised it). These new findings make a case that this should change.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.