Japan: Low-nicotine Cigarettes Not So Low in Practice

Depending on the way in which they are smoked, the doses delivered from low-nicotine cigarettes can end up not being as low as their packages advertise, warn experts at a national health facility.

Japan Low-nicotine Cigarettes Not So Low in Practice

The nicotine amounts listed on cigarette packages vary widely depending on the brand. For example, the product “Mevius One” is listed as having 0.1 milligrams of nicotine per cigarette, while the brand “Peace” is listed as having 2.3 milligrams, a difference of over 20 times.

According to Japan Tobacco Inc. (JT), however, these numbers are in reference not to the nicotine content of the tobacco leaves, but of the smoke that enters the smokers’ mouth. In fact, the nicotine content of the tobacco leaves is generally the same no matter the brand.

So why does the content of the smoke differ? According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare’s National Institute of Public Health in Wako, Saitama Prefecture, the smoke differs because cigarettes labeled with low nicotine levels have air holes near the filter that allow air in and out and lower the nicotine concentration of the smoke.

Cigarettes’ nicotine levels are measured with the air holes open in international standards, which are also used in Japan. Should these holes be blocked, however, the nicotine level in the cigarette smoke would rise. These means that if a smoker were to block these holes with their fingers, perhaps unconsciously, they would inhale more nicotine than is listed on the carton.

Research supports this theory. Yohei Inaba and other researchers at the National Institute of Public Health had around 100 people smoke cigarettes equipped with sensors in an experiment and measured the nicotine levels in their inhaled smoke and saliva.

The results showed that people who smoked cigarettes listed with a low nicotine level under 0.6 milligrams inhaled an average 58.4 milliliters of smoke per puff, compared to an average 50 milliliters of smoke per puff for high-nicotine cigarettes. The researchers believe that the smokers unconsciously smoked more from the lower nicotine cigarettes to try to achieve a balance in their bodies.

The amount of nicotine in the smokers’ saliva was higher on average for higher nicotine cigarettes, as expected. However, the smokers’ took in more nicotine from the lower nicotine cigarettes than expected, and the difference in saliva nicotine levels was only on the order of around three times, even though according to the cigarette boxes the two types of cigarettes had a difference in nicotine levels of over 10 times.

Inaba says, “When people smoke, the air holes may not be fully functioning due to smokers unconsciously blocking them with their fingers. People tend to inhale more smoke when smoking low-nicotine cigarettes, which makes the amount of nicotine they take in exceed what is written on the carton.”

A representative for JT says, “The nicotine amounts listed on cigarette cartons are the results of measurements done by international standards. However, due to individual variation in how people smoke, the amount of nicotine inhaled may not match what is on the cartons.”

Around 5,000 chemical substances exist in cigarette smoke, and around 70 of them are said to be carcinogens. Of them, nitrosoamine, benzene, formaldehyde, cadmium, arsenic compounds and others are among substances categorized as “Group 1” carcinogens — the ones with the most evidence of being carcinogens — by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Cigarette smoke also contains large amounts of the radioactive substance polonium-210, which release alpha rays and has a strong effect on the body.

Naoki Kunugita, department director of the National Institute of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health says, “You can’t tell from the outside of the cigarette cartons about all the carcinogens inside. Low-nicotine cigarettes have carcinogens, just like other cigarettes.” Enditem