When vapers ask how much nicotine is in a cigarette, it’s often because they’re trying to calculate what nicotine strength they want in e-liquid. The idea is to mimic the hit they get from cigarettes, and get the same nicotine experience from vaping that they do from 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 much different, and even an equivalent amount of nicotine won’t provide the same kick when delivered in a vape versus in a cigarette.
Nicotine is a complex topic. We’re a vaping publication, and most of our nicotine articles are focused on vaping. 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 aspects of nicotine usage. Also, this is a pretty interesting topic, and if the FDA manages to reduce nicotine in cigarettes below addictive levels, it will become even more interesting!
Exactly how much nicotine is in one cigarette? It’s a simple question, right?
Well, no. There is between 0.65 and 1 gram of tobacco in an average unlit cigarette, which includes somewhere between 7.5 and 13.4 milligrams of nicotine, according to testing done at Penn State University. Newport cigarettes had the most nicotine of any American brand tested, at 13.4 mg per cigarette.
A Marlboro red contains 10.9 mg of nicotine, and the median of all the brands tested was 10.2 mg per cigarette. A separate study by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scientists shows that Newport and Marlboro brands contain about the same amount of nicotine (19.4 and 20.3 mg) per gram of tobacco. The mean nicotine content for all brands tested by the CDC was 19.2 mg per gram of tobacco.
That certainly debunks the claim that one JUUL pod contains “as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.” A JUUL pod contains 41 mg of nicotine (0.7 mL X 59 mg/mL), but an average pack of cigarettes contains 204 mg of nicotine (20 cigarettes X 10.2 mg)—and some brands contain considerably more.
But the question shouldn’t be how many milligrams of nicotine are in a cigarette. Rather, the issue is how much nicotine from a cigarette is absorbed by the smoker. It’s complicated.
According to Professor 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).” Mayer is a known expert on nicotine, but other researchers have slightly different answers. UCLA professor Arthur Brody says typical “light” cigarettes yield 0.6-1.0 mg, and regular smokes 1.2-1.4 mg per cigarette.
So cigarettes deliver a lot less nicotine to the smoker than they actually contain. The difference may seem huge, but in reality it may not matter. That’s because smokers (and vapers) in large part control their uptake of nicotine, and because other factors account for a big part of a cigarette’s powerful nicotine delivery.
When we use nicotine, we decide ourselves how much we take in—by smoking more or less, faster or slower, and with greater or lesser frequency. 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:
But because our bodies know when we’ve had enough, we stop or slow down. For experienced nicotine 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 O.D.’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 tobacco company tactics, cigarettes are built to deliver a supercharged dose of nicotine to the brain.
Aside from nicotine, cigarettes contain other chemicals that power the nicotine delivery of the smoke. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI’s) combine with nicotine to produce a reinforcing effect in the brain that makes users want nicotine more often.
And tobacco companies discovered long ago that adding ammonia to cigarette tobacco created a form of nicotine that was more desirable, and more addictive to the user. By changing the chemistry of the nicotine that 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 one reason why some scientists say nicotine in e-cigarettes and nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products is probably not as addictive as it is in cigarettes.
The CDC research team that measured the per-gram nicotine content of dozens of cigarette brands also investigated cigars. While none of the cigar types the CDC tested were close in average nicotine content to cigarettes, large cigars (premium, sometimes hand-rolled) were the closest. Here are the cigar types with the mean nicotine concentrations for each, compared to cigarettes:
Even cigars that contain as much or nearly as much nicotine as cigarettes probably don’t deliver it as effectively to the smoker. Cigar smokers don’t typically inhale deeply (or at all), and cigars aren’t treated with ammonia to enhance the addictive power. That’s not to say that cigars can’t be addictive, but they don’t seem to provide the addictive blast of a cigarette.
In July 2017, then-FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced that the agency was beginning research on a plan to reduce the nicotine in cigarettes to non-addictive levels.
The theory is that by 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. Proponents of the plan say that youth experimenters would never get addicted to cigarettes at all.
It’s not a new idea. Tobacco control scientists have discussed lowering the nicotine in cigarettes since at least 1994, and recently clinical trials have been conducted on a so-called very low nicotine cigarettes (VLNC)—which are sometimes called reduced-nicotine cigarettes.
The VLNC plan faces many challenges. First, it will take a long time—and that means the plan will have to be carried out by multiple 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 VLNCs 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 the FDA manages to pull it off—if the agency 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.
Instead of reducing the nicotine content in cigarettes, what about starting out with not allowing the cigarette makers to treat the tobacco with ammonia, which would start to make cigarettes less addicting. Then start reducing the nicotine content of cigarettes. Also just have cigarette makers stop doing anything that “enhances” the nicotine delivery.
That’s exactly right!!! Preventing nicotine in cigarettes will cause many smokers to just smoke more often &/or create a black market. Having them available might be nice so people can select them. Mostly…outlawing the tobacco companies to add ammonia or other enhanced delivery chemicals would be a good start?!!! Maybe that’s why I just can’t seem to want to vape instead of smoke cigarettes?
My thoughts exactly…
When I smoked cigarettes I wanted to smoke all day long, smelled it on my clothing, and coughed from the tar and chemical build-up. I juul with 3% nicotine, am satisfied with a few puffs in the morning, and have no desire at all for more the rest of the day. I smell clean, there is no after stink, no cough. There is no desire to look cool…just have my private puff in the morning. It is bliss without a high, no stink, no spray needed in the car for my clothing, and no gum to make my breath tobacco-free.… Read more »
Glad JUUL has helped you! Cigarettes in Europe are not 90% nicotine-free though — and even if they were, nicotine is not the dangerous part of smoking.
That is a lie, sir. You are spreading misinformation, potentially because you’re misinformed or potentially because of financial incentives to write glowing adverticles for vaping. If you’re in the former camp, my apologies – I have some upsetting information for you. If you’re the latter, you’ll probably just delete my comment. Nicotine itself is directly related to cardiovascular dysfunction through a well elucidated pathway. Damage to the endothelial lining directly results in atherosclerotic plaques which result in heart disease. Vaping nicotine directly causes heart disease and addiction. Nicotine causes heart disease and addiction. Nicotine plus ammonia and MAOI cause worse… Read more »
“Differential Effects of E-Cigarette on Microvascular Endothelial Function, Arterial Stiffness and Oxidative Stress: A Randomized Crossover Trial” – Chaumont M, Jul 10 2018.
The same thing can happens with caffeine, and in fact, the same person who did that study did the caffeine study. Also happens with exercise and listening to rock music https://youtu.be/asU0CEFZVTY?t=768
The other two are tobacco smoke studies, nicotine in other products, like Snus and ecigs, are not the same as nicotine in combustible tobacco.
“In every study, for the last fifty years, nicotine alone has shown serious deleterious health effects.” But I’m a liar?
Can you explain 40 years of epidemiological research on longtime snus users that shows no increased CVD problems?
There are cigarettes with 90% less nicotine in Europe so it can be done, and is being done by American brands like Marlboro and Winston. If the American companies can produce very low nicotine cigarettes for Europe and Canada, they can do it for the US too.
What would be the point of removing the only thing in a cigarette that doesn’t kill you?
Nicotine is not harmful to the cardiovascular system, no matter how you spin it!
Is harmful, not is not
I would think that should be pretty obvious – to remove the only thing that is particularly addictive. After that, many people may not want to keep taking the other stuff that kills them. I know that’s not what the cigarette companies *want* to do, but they could be legislated to do it. And there could still be a market for them as some people might still enjoy smoking tobacco for other reasons (the flavour, the sensation etc). So Carla makes a good point and I don’t think it’s at all as dumb as some people may think it sounds.
Reduce nicotine and the smoker will just smoke that many more cigarettes to reach their desired nicotine plasma levels. That or blackmarket cigarettes will take over.
Impossible to compensate with VLNc. Less cigarettes smoked, more quit attempts. No nicotine addiction.
Very low nicotine cigarettes (VMLCs), as discussed by the FDA during Gottlieb’s tenure (and again lately), contain so little nicotine that it would be impossible to ever get a satisfying amount. No matter how fast you smoke them, the nicotine can’t accumulate in the bloodstream quickly enough to be felt before it’s processed out. So yeah, black market probably.
so, yea, can you just plainly say which mg i should get for my dad? please. just guestimate for me…? im about to buy him a pod vape that is small and easy to put in his pocket. i need to know if its better to get him 20mg, or 50mg? he’s a daily smoker for the last 30 years. i get what you’re saying in the article; i read the whole thing just now, but please just tell me which is MORE COMPARABLE to a cigarette (im obviously getting tobacco flavor for him as well)? would sincerely appreciate some… Read more »
Speaking for myself it took about a year on 24-28mg until i stopped wanting cigarettes , I am currently at 4mg after 4ish years (completly cigarette free) and reducing . I may have slow played it but i’d strongly suggest not to drop his initial nic lv until all the other cigarette addictions have passed
Start 24mg nic for a month then switch without telling him to 12mg nic for a month then 6 mg nic for a month then 3 then 0mg nic without telling him. After about 3-8 months of no nicotine..then tell him there hasn’t been nic that whole time??♂️ That’s the way I’d do it
Where do you get juice that starts at 24? Everywhere I go it’s 6 is the highest you can get now
I suggest visiting a forum like ECF and posing your question, or just looking around on that site.
Was a 2 pack habit now vape 12mg/ml and nic salts 50mg/ml, either way cigarette addiction is nicotine plus 500 other chemicals so the transition to vape is a challenge.
How are you getting a 12 nicotine level all our vape shops keep it at 6?
No vape shops in your area have e-liquid with nic content above 6 mg/mL? I’d start buying online if I were you.
Wow that’s what I will do for myself. I have been smoking forrreverrrr. I really want to quit without telling anyone because every time you see them I have to be asked, “how you doing on quitting”. This way I don’t have to tell anyone and tell them when I’m done.
You’d be wiser to reduce the nic in smaller amts more gradually over the same time period. . .the risk of relapse is greatly teduced with a slower tapering svhedule.
So cutting nic weekly would make more sense.
When I go to smoke shop I’ll ask how many reductions are but the only thing is one puffer has 500 puffs so that means I have to pay $15.00 a week to taper off like that. I would rather only pay $15.00 a month.
We do have an article addressing this very topic, which this article isn’t intended to address. But the short answer is that if it’s a low-power pod device and he is a heavy smoker, 50 mg/mL salt nicotine e-liquid is probably appropriate (though every person is different).
Well, I enjoyed the article, Jim. Tough crowd.
A ton of these nicotine amounts are wrong and are crazy high….