“Spectrum menthol,” Anusionwu said, reading the label aloud. “All right, then. I guess nicotine is nicotine.”
Not quite. The Spectrum cigarettes she’ll be smoking for the next six weeks could contain as much as 95 percent less nicotine than her usual brand. Anusionwu, 54, is among the first of nearly 850 participants around the country who over the next year will help researchers and federal regulators try to answer an important question: How much does nicotine need to be reduced in cigarettes to make them less addictive?
The answer to that question, long explored by academics, has taken on renewed urgency now that the Food and Drug Administration has the authority to regulate the amount of nicotine in cigarettes — although it can’t ban the substance outright.
Congress gave the agency that unprecedented power in a landmark 2009 tobacco control law, and the FDA has faced growing pressure to use it — along with other efforts such as anti-smoking ad campaigns and graphic warning labels on cigarette packages — to reduce the estimated 443,000 deaths caused by smoking each year in the United States.
Few experts argue that lowering levels of nicotine is the only solution to cutting the deadly toll of tobacco. And some say doing so too quickly risks unintended consequences, such as creating a black market for high-nicotine cigarettes or pushing smokers to compensate by smoking more or seeking equally harmful alternatives. But to advocates of the idea, the power to set limits on nicotine could hold the key to ending the checkered history of the cigarette.
“Imagine a world where a cigarette wasn’t addictive,” said Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, which provided millions of dollars to fund the Pittsburgh study and others like it.
In that sort of world, the theory goes, longtime smokers might find it easier to drop the habit. Perhaps more important, the estimated 3,000 teenagers who try their first cigarette each day might not travel down the path of addiction and eventual disease. Harmful chemicals such as tar might remain, but without the ingredient most responsible for keeping people hooked — nicotine — the urge to smoke might wane.
“The question is, how low would [FDA] have to go to produce a beneficial public health impact?” said Eric Donny, a University of Pittsburgh psychology professor overseeing the one-year project.
The study unfolding in Pittsburgh and at nine other sites around the country is the largest of its type to date and eventually could give the agency the data it needs to set new, lower nicotine levels in cigarettes.