Are tobacco companies increasing the nicotine content in cigarettes?

It may seem absurd, or perhaps just a little over-the-top conspiratorial, to think that while major cigarette companies have been paying millions for anti-smoking campaigns, they've been secretly increasing cigarettes' nicotine content to make them more addictive. But that's exactly what two separate studies, one by the Massachussetts Department of Public Health and the other by the Harvard School of Public Health, have found. The results of the most recent research, published in January 2007, show that nicotine levels in cigarettes from all major manufacturers increased 11 percent from 1997 to 2005.

Cigarette manufacturers deny the results of the studies. Philip Morris in particular claims that natural variations in the nicotine content of the tobacco plant can account for the variations found in both studies, and that the variations go both ways. Ultimately, the company says, the nicotine concentrations over a large enough number of years balances out. This was the primary argument made by the tobacco industry in response to the first study, the one by the Massachussetts Department of Public Health (MDPH), which found an average increase of 1.6 percent per year from 1998 through 2004. The state of Massachussetts is one of three that requires cigarette manufacturers to submit nicotine-content analyses for their brands every year, and this is the data the MDPH used in its study.


When the results were made public, tobacco companies insisted across the board that the data they'd sent Massacussetts simply did not back up that type of overall trend. They also said that if the MDPH had included data from 1997 (the earliest year for which Massachussetts had data available) and 2005, the results would have been different.

So the MDPH called on the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) to perform a non-government study (which ended up being funded by the American Legacy Foundation and the National Cancer Institute, both anti-smoking organizations) using data from 1997 through 2005. But the HSPH didn't just analyze the smoke-nicotine data, which is collected from what is essentially a machine smoking a cigarette and reporting on the amount of nicotine it's "inhaling;" it also analyzed the cigarettes themselves to find out how the design may be affecting nicotine intake.

The results of the Harvard study back up the findings of the MDPH: According to Harvard scientists, nicotine levels increased an average of 1.6 percent per year from 1998 to 2004 and 1.1 percent per year from 1997 to 2005. The group's examination of how that increase may have come about pinpoints two major areas: nicotine levels in the tobacco plant and the design of the cigarette. The Harvard study claims that cigarette manufacturers have intentionally increased their plants' nicotine levels in order to produce a more addictive product -- an assertion the tobacco companies reject. In terms of cigarette design, researchers found, among other changes, a steady increase in the number of "puffs per cigarette" over the timeframe they studied, which may mean the delivery of more nicotine per cigarette smoked.

According to both studies, one of the largest-selling Philip Morris brands, Marlboro, showed no increase in nicotine content from 1997 through 2005. Newport (Lorillard Tobacco), Camel and Doral (R.J. Reynolds) brands showed the greatest overall increases in nicotine content.

As of January 2007, cigarettes are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so individual state requests for nicotine levels and other data are the only indicators of cigarette contents, and the reports aren't standardized. Since the release of these two studies, members of the U.S. Congress have announced their intentions to fight the Supreme Court decision that places tobacco products outside of FDA control.

For more information on nicotine, cigarettes and related topics, check out the following links:


  • Arnst, Catherine. ”Smokers Now Puffing More Nicotine.” BusinessWeek. Jan 18, 2007. tc20070118_085513.htm?chan= top+news_top+news+index_businessweek+exclusives
  • ”Cigarettes Now Have More Nicotine.” The Harvard Crimson. Jan. 21, 2007.
  • LeBlanc, Steven. “Study: Nicotine Levels in Cigarettes on the Rise.” LinuxNews. Jan. 19, 2007. Levels-in-Cigarettes-on-the-Rise.xhtml
  • ”Reanalysis of Cigarette Content Confirms Tobacco Companies Have Increased Addictive Nicotine 11 Percent Over Recent Seven-Year Period.” Exduco. Jan. 22, 2007.