50 years have passed since the landmark Surgeon General warning that smoking is bad for your health, and roughly 8 million lives have been saved from anti-smoking measures. But a brand-new study indicates that even though fewer people are smoking — and, in fact, those that do are smoking less — a single cigarette may be more harmful than ever before. A study by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the University of Massachusetts Medical School reveals that today's cigarettes release significantly more nicotine.
From 1998 to 2012, according to the study, the average nicotine yield of a cigarette increased 15 percent, with a cigarette in 1999 delivering 1.65 mg of nicotine and a cigarette in 2011 delivering 1.89 mg of nicotine.
This data was based on cigarettes from four manufacturers (corresponding cigarette brands also listed):
- Lorillard, which makes Newport and Kent
- Philip Morris, which makes Marlboro, Parliament
- R.J. Reynolds, which makes Camel, Kool
- Brown & Williamson, which merged with R.J. Reynolds in 2004
Out of these, R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson had the largest nicotine increases in the last 15 years. Only Lorillard has seen a decrease in nicotine yield in their cigarettes over time.
What this means: Cigarette users could still smoke fewer cigarettes and still get the same amount of nicotine, which some studies have suggested could be as addictive as cocaine and heroin. In other words, it's 15 percent harder to quit than it was in 1998.
Senior author Dr. Wenjun Li's commented on the results.
The 15 percent increase is large. Without knowing the higher nicotine yield, a heavy smoker trying to cut back on the number of cigarettes smoked each day may actually be getting the same amount of nicotine even though they are smoking fewer cigarettes. This makes the quit attempt much harder.
Even more alarming is the fact that nicotine content in cigarettes has remained the same — but the amount a cigarette delivers has increased. Cigarette manufacturers in the past have argued that "agricultural variations in tobacco crops" may lead to more nicotine delivery, but the study's researchers are pushing back against this explanation.
"Unless there have been changes in the design of a cigarette, the ratio of nicotine yield to nicotine content should be unaffected by year-to-year agricultural changes," Dr. Thomas Land, another investigator in the study, stated in a press release to the medical school.
That means there's a possibility that manufacturers may be have changed their cigarette designs to ones that yield more nicotine. One thing is certain: Cigarette companies have a lot of explaining to do.
Incidentally, R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris have not responded to the Boston Globe's requests for comments on the study, though Philip Morris spokesperson told the Globe that the FDA will release further studies on cigarette design and nicotine based on data that Philip Morris will provide.
The study was released just a few days after a new Surgeon General report also pointed to diabetes and colon cancer as potential risks of smoking. Unfortunately, smokers can add this to their list of bad news: kicking the habit might've just gotten 15 percent harder.