How much nicotine is in a cigarette and is it about to change?

Do you know why a cigarette is the most powerful -- and most addictive -- nicotine product?

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Nicotine-in-a-cigarette

When vapers ask how much nicotine is in a cigarette, it’s often because they’re trying to calculate what nicotine concentration they want in e-liquid. The idea is to mimic the hit they get from cigarettes, and get the same nicotine experience vaping that they do smoking.

But knowing how many milligrams of nicotine are in one cigarette won’t necessarily translate to vaping. That’s because the method of delivery is far different, and even an equivalent amount of nic won’t provide the same kick when delivered in a vape versus in a cigarette.

Nicotine is a complex topic, and most of our articles deal strictly with vaping nicotine. But because most vapers were once smokers, and because lots of smokers are looking for low-risk alternatives to cigarettes, we want to explore all nicotine usage. Also, it’s a pretty interesting topic — and if the FDA manages to reduce nicotine in cigarettes below addictive levels, it’ll become even more interesting!

How much nicotine is in a cigarette?

So, exactly how much nicotine is in one cigarette? It’s a simple question, right?

Well, no. There is about a gram of tobacco in an average unlit cigarette, which includes about 8.4 mg of nicotine. But the question isn’t how many milligrams of nicotine are in a cigarette, but how much nicotine in a cigarette is absorbed. It’s complicated.

According to Prof. Bernd Mayer of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Karl-Franzens University Graz (Austria), “Smoking a cigarette results in uptake of approximately 2 mg of nicotine and gives rise to mean arterial plasma concentrations of about 0.03 mg/L (30 ng/ml).”

No other nicotine delivery mechanism provides the addictive blast of a cigarette.

Mayer is a known expert on nicotine, but other academics have slightly different answers. UCLA psychiatry professor Arthur Brody says there are 0.6-1.0 mg of nicotine in “light” cigarettes, and 1.2-1.4 in regular smokes.

It seems like quite a difference, but it may not matter. That’s because other factors account for a big part of a cigarette’s powerful nicotine delivery.

nicotine in vaping and smoking

Nicotine is nicotine, right?

nicotine side effects

When we use nicotine, we ourselves decide how much nicotine we take in — by smoking more or less, faster or slower, more or less often. That’s called self-titration, and all nicotine consumers do it.

You know what it feels like to have too much nicotine, right? Whether you’re getting the drug from cigarettes or a vape, the effects are the same:

  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Cold sweats
  • Insomnia
  • Racing heart
  • Anxious or jittery
  • Ringing ears

But because our bodies know when we’ve had enough, we stop or slow down. For experienced nic users, the process is almost subconscious. Self-titration is our brain telling us when our body needs more or less. And those warning signs are what prevent nicotine overdoses. Nobody OD’s on cigarettes or vapes. You’d have to keep inhaling while vomiting and dealing with a splitting headache!

So nic users keep themselves in check with self-titration. But getting nicotine from a cigarette is a little more complicated. Between tobacco itself and the tobacco companies, cigarettes are built to deliver a supercharged dose of nicotine to the brain.

No other nicotine delivery mechanism provides the addictive blast of a cigarette.

Aside from nicotine, cigarettes contain other things that hyperpower the nicotine delivery of the smoke. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI’s) combine with nicotine to produce a reinforcing effect in the brain that makes us want more nicotine more often.

And tobacco companies discovered long ago that adding ammonia to cigarette tobacco created a “freebase” form of nicotine that was more desirable, and more addictive to the user. By changing the chemistry of the nicotine the smoker absorbs, ammonia supercharges the nicotine as it hits the brain.

Those are all reasons why we can’t simply compare the nicotine content of a cigarette to an equivalent amount of nic in e-liquid or a nicotine patch. Vapes don’t have ammonia or MAOI’s. That’s why scientists say nicotine in e-cigarettes and nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products isn’t close to being as addictive as cigarettes.

No other nicotine delivery mechanism provides the addictive blast of a cigarette.

What if cigarettes had NO nicotine?

That may all change soon though. In July, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced that the agency was beginning research on a plan to reduce the nicotine in cigarettes to a level low enough that they wouldn’t be addictive at all.

The theory is that eliminating cigarettes’ addictive potential while allowing high-nicotine alternatives like e-cigarettes and NRT products to remain on the market, many smokers would migrate to the low-risk alternatives — and new smokers would never get addicted to cigarettes at all.

It’s not a new idea. Tobacco control scientists have written about this since at least 1994, and actual clinical trials have been conducted in recent years for so-called very low nicotine cigarettes (VLNC’s) — which are sometimes called reduced-nicotine cigarettes.

What would prevent a massive black market of nicotine-filled cigarettes?

Gottlieb’s plan faces many challenges. First, it will take a long time — and that means the plan will have to be carried out by future administrations and FDA regulators. And to make it possible, the FDA would have to show that it could enforce the rule. What would prevent a massive black market of nicotine-filled cigarettes?

Additionally, serious large-scale trials would have to show real potential for VLNC’s to succeed. Finally, Congress could buckle to cigarette industry pressure and amend the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act to eliminate the FDA’s authority to alter the nicotine content at all.

But if Gottlieb manages to pull it off, if the FDA is able to eliminate 90 percent or more of the nicotine from cigarettes, it would be one of the most significant political and public health events in decades.

Jim McDonald

I spend most of my time studying the regulatory, legislative and scientific challenges to vaping, advocating for our right to exist, and talking with others who do the same. Consider me a source for information, and feel free to agree or disagree with anything I say. I love good coffee and sweet Michigan cherries. My childhood hero was Gordie Howe.