Reducing the level of nicotine in cigarettes is a regulatory strategy that has the potential to greatly improve public health. If nicotine levels are reduced in all commercially available cigarettes, current smokers might find it easier to quit and young people might be less likely to become dependent. However, it is not yet known whether age moderates subjective or behavioral responses to low-nicotine cigarettes.
Recently, a large, multisite randomized clinical trial was conducted to compare the effects of cigarettes differing in nicotine content (either usual brand or research cigarettes containing 15.8, 5.2, 2.4, 1.3, or 0.4 mg nicotine/g tobacco) across six weeks of exposure. In this secondary analysis, we tested whether age moderated smokers’ subjective (measures of psychological reward, smoking satisfaction) and behavioral (cigarettes smoked per day, smoking topography, and nicotine exposure) responses to cigarettes varying in nicotine content after two and six weeks of use, while controlling for baseline dependence and demographic factors.
Results indicated that younger adults (age 18-24) who smoked cigarettes with 2.4-0.4 mg/g nicotine reported significantly less smoking satisfaction and psychological reward, and smoked fewer cigarettes per day, than older adults (25+ years) after two weeks of use. No differences in topography were observed at either time point. After six weeks of use, differences had diminished on all measures.
The reduced positive effects of reduced-nicotine content cigarettes in young adults suggests that this regulatory policy may reduce smoking reinforcement in this vulnerable population.
As the FDA considers reducing the level of nicotine in cigarettes to make them less addictive, understanding the potential impact of this policy on young people is of crucial importance. We found that young adults had significantly lower positive subjective effects to VLNC cigarettes and smoked fewer VLNC cigarettes than older adults after two weeks of use, indicating that this policy may reduce smoking reinforcement more quickly in young adults. These data add to the growing body of evidence on the potential for this policy to positively impact public health.