WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.

Harvard study says ‘cigarette additives’ are the real danger; vaping is not

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced that the agency is considering new regulatory actions to limit the nicotine levels associated with combustible tobacco and vapor products.  According to agency officials, nicotine reduction will diminish the products’ addictiveness especially among teens, but a Harvard study is suggesting that the FDA’s efforts may be focusing on the wrong thing.  Highly toxic cigarette additives like ammonia and acetaldehyde may be the real and significant danger.

Since the 1960s, addiction specialists had already determined that smoking addiction is a leading cause of death in the United States and abroad.  They have also known for decades that the most substantial proportion of health risks associated with smoking comes from the thousands of extra chemicals intentionally placed inside combustible tobacco products that are specifically designed to keep the smoker hooked.

It’s not the nicotine that’s so addictive and cancer-causing.  It’s predominately the tar and other noxious substances found inside the combustible cigarettes themselves. 

Overview of the Harvard study on chemical additives in cigarettes.

The Harvard study entitled A study of pyrazines in cigarettes and how additives might be used to enhance tobacco addiction is published via  BMJ Tobacco Control.  Led by Dr. Hillel R. Alpert of the Harvard Department of Environmental Health, its co-authors acknowledge that the general public has vast misconceptions surrounding the dangers of smoking, nicotine, and subsequently vaping, as well.  In short, the general population tends to mistakenly assume that tobacco and nicotine are equally as hazardous to one’s health.

Nicotine is a common substance found in many of nature’s plants, including eggplants, tomatoes, and potatoes.  On the other hand, the chemical additives of tobacco cigarettes are not found in nature and, therefore deserve further scientific scrutiny.  Scientists call these extra substances pyrazines.  The Harvard team set out to conduct an extensive evaluation of their additivity compared to that of nicotine.

Related Article:  Vaping has no myocardial effects, but one cigarette has instant negative results

They began by collecting historical data of the wide range of constantly evolving ingredients and chemical compounds of conventional cigarettes over the years.  The recipes would often deviate per manufacturer and the particular period in American history.  For example, in the early 1950s, cigarettes had far fewer chemical additives than they do today.

By comparing the variations in pyrazines and their associated levels of recipe inclusion over the decades, the Harvard team began to discover a pattern.   As the public perception of smoking began to turn more negative in the 1970s and 1980s, the levels and numbers of these extra chemical pyrazines placed inside the cigarette recipes gradually escalated in intensity.

“Tobacco manufacturers developed the use of a range of compounds, including pyrazines, in order to enhance ‘light’ cigarette products’ acceptance and sales. Pyrazines with chemosensory and pharmacological effects were incorporated in the first ‘full-flavour, low-tar’ product achieving high market success. Such additives may enhance dependence by helping to optimise nicotine delivery and dosing and through ceing and learned behaviour.”

But the news doesn’t stop there.  Not only do these chemicals make the tobacco products more addictive, they also have the unique effects of making them less detrimentally appealing to a novice smoker.  Simply put, smoking today tastes better and doesn’t make the newbie smoker automatically cough and choke as much as they did in decades prior.  The Harvard team also determined that many of the newer chemical additives actually promote smoking relapse, as well.

“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.”

The study also makes clear that nicotine by itself is only nominally addictive, especially in comparison to these chemical pyrazines. However, when these extra pyrazines are thrown into the mix, the additivity of nicotine is enhanced greatly.

In other words, smokers would not become so addicted to smoking were it not for these extra, needless chemicals placed inside Big Tobacco cigarettes – which the e-liquids used in vaping lack 100%.  As a result, the Harvard scientists suggest that if the FDA truly wants to promote improved public health, it should turn its attention towards the regulation of the tobacco cigarette pyrazines rather than limiting or regulating the associated nicotine levels. 

Related Article:  Vaping is twice as effective than NRTs for smoking cessation, says new study

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock)


  • I just switched to vaping after smoking for the last 10 years and I can promise you they put other things that are addictive in processed rolled cigarettes. I would feel groggy and get headaches some times when smoking them but now vaping that never happens. I tried yesterday to vape for almost 30 mins while reading and nothing like that happened. Also like another said I still have the urge to get a Marlboro right after. my body wants something even tho I just gave it nicotine. Gotta be a few of the 7000 chemicals in there I would think.

    Hunter Wilson
  • I posted this to We are CASAA on Facebook and got record number of shares and reactions. Great job Matt! You may want to stop by and comment. :)

  • The author of this article should have looked into the topic quite a bit more before accepting the statements in the cited article at face value. Pyrazines are normal constituents of cured leaf tobacco and cooked carbohydrate foods. They account for the characteristic flavor of popcorn, toasted bread and other browned/toasted carbohydrate foods. They are also primary flavor components of tobacco and tobacco smoke. This has been appreciated for decades. There’s no deep plot here- just basic flavor chemistry.

    Dan Heck
  • I can attest to this. When I smoked (before switching to much safer Vaping), I could smoke a pipe (straight tobacco) and still felt like I needed a cigarette afterwards. I could smoke “American Spirit” (100% tobacco cigarettes) and still feel like I needed a cigarette afterwards.
    I knew, just from my own experience, that something was “added” to regular cigarettes to make me crave them.
    It wasn’t the nicotine; I was getting that with the pipe. It was something else.

    Greg Baughman

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