WASHINGTON – The amount of nicotine in most cigarettes rose an average of almost 10 percent from 1998 to 2004, with brands most popular with young people and minorities registering the biggest increases and highest nicotine content, according to a new study.
Nicotine is highly addictive, and while no one has studied the effect of the increases on smokers, the higher levels theoretically could make new smokers more easily addicted as well as make it harder for established smokers to quit.
The trend was discovered by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which requires that tobacco companies measure the nicotine content of cigarettes each year and report the results.
Using a method that mimics actual smoking, the nicotine delivered per cigarette – the “yield” – rose 9.9 percent from 1998 to 2004 – from 1.72 milligrams to 1.89 milligrams. The total nicotine content increased an average of 16.6 percent in that period, and the amount of nicotine per gram of tobacco increased 11.3 percent.
In all, 92 of 116 brands tested had higher nicotine yield in 2004 than in 1998, and 52 had increases of more than 10 percent.
Doral 85 filter light, a low-tar brand made by R.J. Reynolds, had the biggest increase in yield, 36 percent. Some of this may have been the result of an increase in the total amount of tobacco put in that brand’s cigarettes, one expert said.
The nicotine in Marlboro, the brand preferred by two-thirds of high-school smokers, increased 12 percent. Kool menthol lights increased 30 percent. Two-thirds of African-American smokers use menthol brands.
Not only did most brands have more nicotine in 2004, the number of brands with very high nicotine yields also rose.
In 1998, Newport menthol filter 100s and Camel non-filters were tied for highest nicotine – at 2.9 milligrams. In 2004, Newport menthols had risen to 3.2 milligrams, and five brands in all were 3.0 milligrams or higher.
“The reports are stunning,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “What’s critical is the consistency of the increase, which leads to the conclusion that it has to have been conscious and deliberate.”
Massachusetts is one of only three states that require tobacco companies to provide annual measurements of nicotine in cigarettes. An official there would not speculate whether the rise in nicotine was intentional and said the health department had not asked tobacco companies to explain the trend.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focused on the potential behavioral consequences of the finding.
“We know nicotine is addictive, so if the amount of nicotine in cigarettes is increasing, it could make it even harder for the 70 percent of smokers who want to quit and the more than 40 percent who try to quit every year,” said Corinne Husten, acting director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, in an e-mail message.
No spokesman for a tobacco company would speak on the record about the Massachusetts findings on Wednesday.
One company official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that while the nicotine content measured by smoking machines can vary by up to 6 percent between individual cigarettes of the same brand, “we don’t know” whether an entire brand’s production could differ that much from year to year.
However, in a 1,653-page opinion released two weeks ago in a landmark suit against the major tobacco companies by the federal government and several anti-smoking organizations, the judge found that cigarette makers adjusted nicotine levels with great care.
“Using the knowledge produced by that research, defendants have designed their cigarettes to precisely control nicotine delivery levels and provide doses of nicotine sufficient to create and sustain addiction,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler.
The ruling enjoined the companies from misinforming the public about tobacco’s hazards. The companies are uncertain what that means and cited the ruling on Wednesday as the chief reason for their silence. R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard have also temporarily shut down their Web sites.