Nicotine is addictive. Most people who have smoked 60 cigarettes are going to be daily smokers. According to Jonathan Foulds, professor of public health sciences and psychiatry and co-director of Penn State Center for Research on Tobacco and Health, the average middle-aged smoker has made about 20 serious attempts to quit. After deciding to try to quit, the average smoker has a 95 percent chance of still smoking a year later. Even with counselling and using a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved cessation medicine, there is still an 80 percent chance they will be smoking again in a year.
Speaking during the Global Tobacco & Nicotine Forum (GTNF), Foulds said that people smoke for the psychological effects of nicotine, but they suffer the health effects created by inhaling combustible tobacco. To lessen the harms of nicotine consumption, regulators should focus on ways to get cigarette smokers to switch to less-risky forms of nicotine intake.
“If it were not for the nicotine in tobacco smoke, people would be little more inclined to smoke than they are to blow bubbles,” he said. “Blowing bubbles is fun, but no one wants to do it 20 times a day for the rest of their life. It’s the nicotine that’s key to [people smoking].”
Despite the addictiveness of nicotine, cigarette consumption in the United States has been falling consistently over the past 20 years. Cigarette consumption has fallen more than 50 percent since 1997. That is equal to approximately 200 billion fewer cigarettes being sold per year since 1997, and there are now many more people in the U.S. Foulds said there is also evidence that the decline has been accelerating over the past few years [alongside the growing popularity of vapor products].
Meanwhile, youth smoking rates have declined dramatically. In the 1970s, an average of 30 percent of high school seniors smoked cigarettes. In 1995, that number dropped to 25 percent. Today, less than 2 percent of high school seniors smoke cigarettes.
“The massive cigarette sales that the industry has been used to—clearly, that is coming to an end. I mean, the end is in sight from the cigarette industry,” Foulds told the GTNF audience. “What I’m trying to get across here to many of you—who are from the industry—is that we may be coming to a tipping point where it would be much better, rather than to just fight [regulators], it may actually be a wiser strategy to accept that this is happening sooner or later in terms of cigarettes and get ahead of it and embrace it.”
For cigarette manufacturers to survive, Foulds said they must promote less-risky forms of nicotine intake. Lower nicotine cigarettes are one example of how manufacturers can help push people to other products, such as e-cigarettes. He was unconcerned about consumers compensating for lower amounts of nicotine by smoking more cigarettes. “There’s now a bunch of studies—almost a dozen studies and they’re fairly consistent—showing that compensatory smoking really isn’t a thing that happens with these kinds of cigarettes,” he said. “The smokers learn pretty quickly that they can puff as much as they like, and they’re not going to get any satisfying amount of nicotine out of them.”
Another concern is that if only lower nicotine cigarettes are available, this would push smokers to the black market for higher nicotine cigarettes. Foulds says several studies have shown that that is not true. Smokers would be more likely to move to products such as e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn systems to get the nicotine they crave.
E-cigarettes are not without health risks, according to Foulds. “They are likely to be far less harmful than combustible tobacco cigarettes,” he clarified. “E-cigarettes contain fewer numbers and lower levels of toxicant substances than conventional cigarettes. There’s been more and more evidence that e-cigarettes deliver far, far lower levels of harmful toxicants than cigarettes. It’s become very, very consistent … e-cigarettes can help people quit.”
If regulators allow high-nicotine, reduced-harm products, like e-cigarettes, to remain in the market, Foulds says that it is highly likely that many current smokers will reduce their smoking, quit or switch to reduced toxic-exposure products, resulting in a substantial improvement in overall public health. “It is time for major cigarette manufacturers to support nicotine reduction in combustibles as perhaps their best chance of still being in business in 2030,” he said.