New research published in the New England Journal of Medicine is widely being reported by anti-smoking groups and advocates as having found that subjects who received low-nicotine cigarettes significantly decreased their cigarette consumption. For example, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids claimed that: "After six weeks, smokers given cigarettes with 2.4 mg of nicotine or less smoked significantly fewer cigarettes per day... ." Dr. Stan Glantz claimed that "smokers smoke less" after big cuts in nicotine in cigarettes. And the study itself concluded that "these data suggest that if nicotine content is adequately reduced, smokers may benefit by smoking fewer cigarettes... ."
The Rest of the Story
Once again, these anti-smoking groups and advocates are deceiving the public. The truth is that the study found no significant change in cigarette consumption (the number of cigarettes smoked per day) among smokers assigned to the very low-nicotine cigarettes. Subjects assigned to smoke the very low-nicotine cigarettes smoked an average of about 15 cigarettes per day at baseline and an average of about 15 cigarettes per day at follow-up. Thus, there was essentially no change in their cigarette consumption. Moreover, the exhaled carbon monoxide levels did not change significantly among the very low-nicotine group, indicating no significant reduction in tobacco smoke exposure.
The study did find a significant difference in the number of cigarettes smoked at follow-up between the very low-nicotine and higher nicotine groups. The mean difference in cigarette consumption between the groups was significant. This is because cigarette consumption among the higher nicotine groups actually increased.
These data do not support the conclusion that very low-nicotine cigarettes result in a significant reduction in the number of cigarettes smoked per day among smokers switching to such products. In fact, there was no observed reduction in cigarette consumption at six weeks, so such a conclusion cannot be supported by these data. But at very least, the reports that smokers smoke less after cuts in nicotine or that smokers given low-nicotine cigarettes smoked fewer cigarettes afterwards are incorrect.
It is difficult for me to see how a study which found no significant change in cigarette consumption among smokers who switched to very low-nicotine cigarettes can possibly support the conclusion that regulating nicotine levels in cigarettes would result in a significant reduction in cigarette consumption among smokers. Such a conclusion appears to reflect a bias in the interpretation of the study results that favors a nicotine regulation policy.
In contrast, there is strong evidence that switching to electronic cigarettes results in a substantial reduction in cigarette consumption. The majority of smokers in a similar clinical trial of e-cigarettes cut their actual cigarette consumption by more than 50%.
So why is it that anti-smoking groups and advocates are jumping on top of the idea of very low-nicotine cigarettes but completely shunning the idea of e-cigarettes?
The answer is simple: ideological bias.