This study examined whether exposure to reduced-nicotine-content cigarettes (RNCCs) for 12 weeks alters respiratory health using Fractional Exhaled Nitric Oxide (FeNO), a validated biomarker of respiratory epithelial health, and the Respiratory Health Questionnaire (RHQ), a subject-rated questionnaire on respiratory symptoms. Participants were 747 adult daily smokers enrolled in three double-blind, randomized clinical trials evaluating effects of cigarette nicotine content (0.4, 2.4, 15.8 mg nicotine/g tobacco) in people with affective disorders, opioid use disorder (OUD), or socioeconomic disadvantage.
FeNO levels and RHQ ratings were collected at baseline and Weeks 6 and 12 following randomization. Multiple regression was used to assess associations of FeNO and RHQ with smoking characteristics. Mixed-model repeated-measures ANOVA was used to evaluate effects of nicotine content on FeNO and RHQ outcomes over the 12-week study period.
FeNO levels but not RHQ ratings varied inversely with smoking characteristics at baseline (Ps<0.0001) in smokers with affective disorders and socioeconomic disadvantage but less so in those with OUD. Participants with affective disorders and socioeconomic disadvantage, but not those with OUD, who were assigned to RNCCs had higher FeNO levels at Week 12 than those assigned to the 15.8 mg/g dose (F[2,423]=4.51, p=0.01, Cohen d=0.21). No significant dose-related changes in RHQ scores were identified.
Use of RNCCs across a 12-week period attenuates smoking-related reductions in FeNO levels in smokers with affective disorders and socioeconomic disadvantage although not those with OUD. FeNO changes were not accompanied by changes in respiratory-health ratings.
Should a reduced nicotine content standard be implemented; these results suggest that reduced nicotine content in cigarettes will not exacerbate and instead may attenuate smoking-related decreases in FeNO. This is significant as NO is an important component in maintaining a healthy respiratory system and necessary to defend against infection. Furthermore, the results of the current study demonstrate that the adoption of the reduced nicotine content standard may result in beneficial impacts on respiratory epithelial health among vulnerable populations that are disproportionally affected by the adverse health outcomes precipitated by combustible tobacco use.