Fighting Smoke With Smoke
Feb. 15, 2002 -- Coming soon to a store near you: nicotine-free cigarettes. Smoking them is supposed to help you quit smoking.
This isn't the first time that the tobacco industry has come up with this idea. The soon-to-be-renamed Philip Morris Co. Inc. couldn't sell cigarettes made from tobacco treated to remove nicotine. Vector Tobacco Inc. recently began selling the "reduced carcinogen" Omni cigarettes. Now Vector has a new almost-no-nicotine product made from genetically engineered tobacco plants. It's slated for release some time this year.
Why would anybody smoke this high-tar, no-nicotine product -- even if, as advertised, they taste like full-nicotine cigarettes? The idea is that these "no-nics" might satisfy the urge to smoke while at the same time weaning a person from nicotine. Can it work?
That depends on whom you ask. So far, the only researcher to look at how the new tobacco product might help people quit smoking is Jed E. Rose, PhD, a neuroscientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. Rose has some pretty good credentials -- he's the inventor of the nicotine patch.
"I think it is a very seriously promising approach that needs to be explored," Rose tells WebMD. "A lot of people jump to conclusions based on the presumed motives of the tobacco companies. Whether it works is a scientific issue, not a political one. There is widespread acceptance of the theory that people smoke because they are dependent on nicotine. So if you remove nicotine, it might possibly be a step toward quitting. It needs to be tested and it may or may not work."
Other observers are far less impressed with the idea. One of them is Jeff Wigand, PhD, the former cigarette company executive who blew the whistle on his former employers.
"The way to help smokers to quit is to help them get over their nicotine addiction -- and this is best done with help from people who have the person's heath as their first interest, not a tobacco company," Wigand tells WebMD. "When has a single tobacco company got into the smoking-cessation business? Now we are going to give out cigarettes as a quitting strategy? If smokers need something to hold in their hands, give them a pencil."
Randolph D. Smoak Jr., MD, immediate past president of the American Medical Association, says nicotine-free and reduced-carcinogen cigarettes are just marketing gimmicks.
"A cigarette is nothing but a delivery device for premature death," Smoak says. "No matter how you dress it up or dress it down, it is the same product. If you take away the nicotine, then people are not going to smoke it, because they do not get the nicotine kick. If people are still smoking cigarettes without nicotine -- if they will -- they still are exposed to the carcinogens. To say we will take away the addictive portion is no salvation. To diminish the nicotine is just a false sense of security and hope for people who are addicted and are exposed to carcinogens."
In a study being presented to the Feb. 20-23, 2002, annual meeting of the Society for Research on Nicotine in Tobacco, Rose looked at what happens when smokers use no-nic cigarettes.
Smokers who use low-tar, low-nicotine cigarettes puff harder to get a satisfactory smoke. But Rose found that these same smokers take normal puffs of high-tar, no-nicotine cigarettes. And the no-nics satisfied smokers' craving for cigarettes -- although it didn't keep them from getting the bad mood that's part of nicotine withdrawal.
Rose says that cigarettes give a smoker a quick nicotine "spike." This acts as a reward and makes a smoker want another cigarette. Rose says that no-nic cigarettes don't have that reward -- so smoking them might eventually break the vicious smoking-reward circle.
"Whether those internal cues to keep smoking extinguish over time, that is the big unknown," Rose says. "If it turns out to be a period of weeks, that would be great. If it took years [of smoking no-nic cigarettes], it would not be so great. We just don't know the answer to that question yet."
Rose's study was partially funded by an unrestricted gift to Duke University by Vector. Rose says he's free to use the funds any way he likes, has no limits on what he's able to say about the work, and has no financial interest in Vector.