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Harvard study: It’s the chemicals in cigarettes that kills, not the nicotine

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has been all over the news this week promoting a formal notice of proposed rulemaking regarding maximum nicotine levels in combustible cigarettes.  According to Gottlieb, if the FDA can reduce the levels of addictive nicotine in cigarettes, then hopefully millions of smokers will somehow magically quit.

There are several problems with this argument.  First, there are hundreds of studies conducted by very reputable scientists well before the notion of vaping ever entered mainstream consciousness that state unequivocally that being addicted to nicotine is not really all that harmful.  In fact, Dr. Drew Pinsky of MTV fame once said the very same thing on an episode of The Adam Carolla Show.

“Vaping is not tobacco.  There’s nothing wrong with the nicotine, which is what you’re addicted to.  It’s the tobacco that causes all the F-ing damage.  So, you’ve got to get off the tobacco.  You can sure stay on the nicotine.  Find a nicotine replacement. Use a vape. Whatever, and then try to taper down from there….but if you can’t, stay with…anything but tobacco.”

Of course, Dr. Drew may not be the most reputable person to listen to.  For those who prefer a more conventional source, look to a recent nicotine study conducted by scientists from Harvard University.  The study entitled A study of pyrazines in cigarettes and how additives might be used to enhance tobacco addiction is published in BMJ Tobacco Control.   

Overview of the Harvard Nicotine Study

Combustible cigarettes are not made from only tobacco leaves. Manufacturers intentionally place lots of additional chemicals and other substances inside them, too.  Some of these chemicals are preservatives for the tobacco while others are intentionally designed to keep the smoker hooked.  These needless yet addictive elements are called pyrazines.


The Harvard team wanted to prove once and for all that it’s these pyrazines that keep smokers addicted – not the nicotine -  which later causes cancer and other deadly diseases.  After piling through volumes of research regarding the toxicities of combustible tobacco products dating back 25 years and longer, the researchers came to the following conclusion.

“Cigarette additives and ingredients with chemosensory effects that promote addiction by acting synergistically with nicotine, increasing product appeal, easing smoking initiation, discouraging cessation or promoting relapse should be regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration. Current models of tobacco abuse liability could be revised to include more explicit roles with regard to non-nicotine constituents that enhance abuse potential.”

FDA Chief Scott Gottlieb apparently agrees.  In a recent interview last Friday on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Gottlieb stated that “it’s combustible cigarettes that are the problem,” not the nicotine.  After all, Gottlieb’s agency has already issued numerous FDA approvals over the years to manufacturers of nicotine gums, patches, and lozenges.

So, why does he want to place new limits on nicotine levels again?  Shouldn’t he be targeting the addictive pyrazines and other needless chemicals in combustible cigarettes instead?  Currently Gottlieb is asking for guidance from public health officials and tobacco control experts on how best to roll out the new regulations.  Hopefully, one of them will instruct Dr. Gottlieb that he is targeting the wrong ingredients.


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