Dr. Anthony Komaroff

Dr. Anthony Komaroff

Smoking study yields a surprise

By Dr. Anthony Komaroff
Medical Columnist

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Dear Dr. Komaroff: I’ve decided to quit smoking. Do you think low-nicotine cigarettes could be a good stepping-stone to kicking the habit completely?

Dear Reader: A team of researchers recently set out to answer a similar question to the one you asked. In essence, they wanted to know: If you could reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes, would it help people quit, or might it cause them to smoke more to compensate?

The researchers followed more than 800 adults who smoked at least five cigarettes a day. These study volunteers had no desire to quit smoking. They were asked to either continue smoking their regular brand of cigarette or to smoke one of six types of investigational cigarettes. These cigarettes contained varying amounts of nicotine, ranging from 15.8 milligrams of nicotine per gram of tobacco (the amount found in most commercial brands) down to 0.4 mg per gram. The smokers were followed for six weeks.

The results were unexpected. The people given the lower-nicotine cigarettes smoked 23 percent to 30 percent fewer cigarettes per day than those who smoked the cigarettes with 15.8 mg of nicotine per gram. Perhaps even more surprising, the low-nicotine cigarette smokers also had reduced dependence on nicotine and fewer cravings for cigarettes.

This study only lasted six weeks. We’ll need longer trials to help us really understand whether low-nicotine cigarettes are a “safer” option for people who are trying to quit.

Dr. Anthony Komaroff is a physician and a professor at Harvard Medical School. To submit a question, go to his website, askdoctork.com.