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Very Low Nicotine Cigarettes May Reduce Addiction

FILE - A person lights a cigarette.

Nicotine is highly addictive and it is the main reason quitting smoking is so difficult. Now, a new study suggests mandating the sale of only very low nicotine cigarettes may actually help people kick the habit.

In some countries, upwards of 50 percent of all men smoke cigarettes or use another tobacco product. And experts say roughly half of them will die of cancer from the deadly habit.

But there’s evidence that a national policy significantly reducing the allowable amount of nicotine - the addictive substance in cigarettes – might help smokers quit.

U.S. researchers recruited more than 800 smokers at 10 sites across the country.

The participants didn’t know it, but some were given very low-nicotine cigarettes while others smoked their usual brand.

At the end of six weeks, those who smoked regular cigarettes – with an average amount of addictive nicotine – lit up between 22 and 21 cigarettes per day.

But those who smoked cigarettes containing a fraction of the amount of nicotine, an average of 30 percent less than that found in the average cigarette, smoked 14 to 16 cigarettes a day, a reduction of 5 to cigarettes smoked per day.

Smokers who got the lower nicotine cigarettes did not feel the usual withdrawal symptoms and some even went on to quit.

An article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, bolsters the case for regulating nicotice as path to help quit smoking.

Tobacco researcher Michael Fiore was not involved in the study, but wrote a commentary in the journal.

“Way back in 1976, an early and famous tobacco researcher said the following: ‘People smoke for the nicotine but they die from the tar.’ And that tar results from burning tobacco," he said. "Thus if we could some how disassociate these two, and wean people off deadly tar, then we could prevent tens of millions of deaths over time."

The idea of marketing cigarettes containing very low nicotine is intriguing to David Tinkelman, Medical Director of Health Initiatives at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado.

But he notes that cigarette replacements - such as electronic or e-cigarettes in which smokers inhale water vapor laced with nicotine - have not reduced nicotine addiction or tobacco use.

“There are many studies which show that e-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine, don’t actually help a lot of people break their addiction to tobacco or help get off of cigarettes," he said. "What happens is they switch addictions. They are just taking it a different way."

Both men agree more studies are needed to demonstrate the effectiveness of cigarettes with low nicotine in helping smokers kick the habit.

But the White House isn't waiting. In 2009, President Obama signed a law giving regulators permission to require that only cigarettes with very low nicotine levels be sold in the United States.

The Food and Drug Administration has yet to act on that authority.