How much nicotine are you actually putting into your body when you smoke a cigarette? The answer may be far more complex than you might think.
How much nicotine are you actually putting into your body when you smoke a cigarette? Have you ever stopped to think about the answer to that question? Maybe you simply assumed that all cigarettes are more or less the same, or perhaps you came to the conclusion that “light” cigarettes must be lower in nicotine than full-flavoured cigarettes. The answer to how much nicotine is in one cigarette, however, is actually far more complex than you might think.
If you’re trying to switch successfully to vaping and want to determine what nicotine strength to buy and how often you should vape, it’s a good idea to have at least a bit of an idea of how much nicotine you put into your body as a smoker, and we’re going to shed some light on the answer to that question in this article.
Before we begin, though, we’d like to give you a bit of good news. Reading this article, you’re going to learn that two factors – the secrecy of tobacco companies and the different ways in which people smoke cigarettes – make it very difficult to pin down the exact amount of nicotine in one cigarette or the precise amount of nicotine that actually enters your bloodstream when you smoke. In the end, though, it isn’t truly necessary to know the exact amount because nicotine users always self-titrate. That means your body will tell you when you’ve had enough nicotine, so the risk of overconsumption is minimal.
Let’s learn more about the incredibly complex answer to a seemingly simple question: How much nicotine is in one cigarette?
Smoking Machines Measure the Nicotine Yield of Cigarettes
Researchers use smoking machines to measure the tar and nicotine yields of cigarettes. Using a smoking machine begins with inserting cigarettes into receptacles. The machine then lights the cigarettes and uses air pressure to “smoke” them, mimicking the inhalation patterns of a human. As the smoke travels through the machine, sensors analyse it to determine the cigarette’s tar and nicotine content. Sounds pretty simple, right?
Unfortunately, this is where the complexity begins. An average cigarette contains about 10-12 mg of nicotine. In one study that analysed 14 cigarette brands from around the world, the lowest-nicotine cigarettes contained 6.17 mg of nicotine, and the highest-nicotine cigarettes contained 28.86 mg. That, however, is only the beginning. A filter, for instance, traps some of the nicotine before it escapes the cigarette. Some cigarettes also have perforated papers that, when used as intended, prevent the inhalation of some of the nicotine. Also, some of the nicotine in a cigarette simply burns away before you can inhale it. You can safely assume, though, that an average cigarette will hover around 10-12 mg in nicotine content before accounting for those factors. Of that, you’ll absorb around 1.1-1.8 mg of nicotine into your bloodstream.
Bioavailability Affects the Amount of Nicotine That Enters Your Bloodstream
Next, let’s talk a bit about bioavailability. This term refers to the amount of any active ingredient that enters your bloodstream when you consume it. When you take any medication, drug or supplement with an active ingredient, your body will metabolize a portion of the active ingredient before it enters your bloodstream. An oral medication, for instance, will usually come in a fairly high dose because the liver neutralizes much of the active ingredient before the remaining amount is absorbed into your bloodstream through the digestive system.
Injectable medications, on the other hand, can have very low doses because the bioavailability of a medication injected directly into the bloodstream is near 100 percent.
Inhalation has a very high level of bioavailability. That’s why many people have been able to quit smoking by switching to vaping, even though those same people were unable to quit with products like nicotine gum. The bioavailability of nicotine absorbed through the oral mucosa – and the speed of absorption – are poor compared to inhalation. Inhaling nicotine is a much more satisfying way of consuming it.
Despite that fact, though, some of the nicotine that you inhale doesn’t reach your bloodstream. That’s why tobacco companies such as Philip Morris began to experiment with nicotine chemistry in the 1960s. Philip Morris processed cigarette tobacco with ammonia because it increased product yields and improved the flavour of reconstituted tobacco. In doing so, the company discovered that the ammonia also converted some of the nicotine in the tobacco from a salt to a free base, thus making the nicotine more volatile and more readily absorbed by the body. Freebase nicotine allowed cigarette brands like Marlboro to gain significant market share. People found the cigarettes more satisfying even though the actual amount of nicotine contained in them was less than some other brands.
Today, freebase nicotine is well known throughout the tobacco industry. Many cigarette companies process tobacco with ammonia or use other tricks to maximize the freebase nicotine content in their cigarettes. For that reason, you can’t always compare the nicotine content of different cigarette brands directly. A “low-yield” cigarette brand may contain a higher percentage of freebase nicotine than a “full-flavoured” brand, which could mean that the amount of nicotine absorbed when smoking the two cigarettes is roughly the same.
Smokers Often “Cheat” When Smoking Low-Yield Cigarettes
Chemical manipulation of nicotine is one reason why it is so difficult to determine how much nicotine is in one cigarette. The total amount of nicotine in the cigarette may differ drastically from the amount of nicotine you’ll absorb by smoking it.
The other factor that can cause extreme variability in the nicotine delivery of different cigarettes is how people actually use those cigarettes in the real world. For instance, we’ve mentioned the fact that many “light” cigarettes use perforated papers to reduce the amount of smoke and nicotine inhaled by the user. In practice, though, many people simply cover those holes with their fingers.
Finally, the question of how much nicotine is in one cigarette comes back to a topic that we mentioned at the beginning of this article: titration. In general, the amount of nicotine in a cigarette doesn’t matter that much because you’ll automatically adjust your own nicotine consumption until you reach your desired level of satisfaction. Users of “light” cigarettes often smoke more total cigarettes than users of “full-flavoured” cigarettes for that reason.
How Much Nicotine Is in One Cigarette? Final Thoughts
As you’ve learned from reading this article, there is no easy answer to the question of how much nicotine is in one cigarette. However, there’s no need to let the complexity of that question make your switch from smoking to vaping more difficult than it needs to be. When you start vaping, you’ll find that you automatically put your e-cigarette down when you’ve had enough nicotine. With that in mind, there’s little reason to be overly concerned about whether you’re vaping too much or not enough. If you listen to your body, chances are that you’ll use exactly the amount of nicotine you require.