Tox Tuesday: New, less addictive cigarettes?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is enacting a plan that may drive down cigarette smoking rates within the country.

The plan would reduce the level of nicotine allowed in cigarettes, making them less addictive. The addictive nature of cigarettes is a major factor in their prevalence; a recent survey shows that three out of every five people who smoke a single cigarette eventually become habitual smokers.

The plan would also allow greater opportunities for “reduced-risk” smoking products, like electronic cigarettes and vaporizers. These products still deliver nicotine, but don’t have many of the harmful components of regular cigarettes. The FDA plan looks particularly at vaporizers, which instead of burning tobacco and causing smoke, vaporizes it, reducing exposure to tar and unhealthy chemicals.

About nicotine

Nicotine is one of the most heavily used addictive drugs in the U.S. Though statistics are lowering as more people move away from cigarettes (just 15% of the population smoke, reports Associated Press), smoking nicotine-laden cigarettes is still considered the country’s leading preventable cause of death and illness.

Nicotine is an alkaloid, which is a naturally occurring chemical compound found in plants. Alkaloids contain mostly nitrogen atoms, and in many cases have major physiological effects on humans and animals that ingest them. Just 10 seconds after nicotine is inhaled from a cigarette, it can already affect the brain.

Nicotine’s addictiveness is one of its most dangerous qualities. What happens is that nicotine affects the central nervous system and the adrena medulla, which is part of the adrenal gland (located near your kidneys). In the central nervous system, nicotine binds to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. This triggers the release of “feel-good” neurotransmitters, like dopamine. In the adrena medulla, nicotine causes an increase of the amount of calcium infused into cells, which in turn releases the hormone epinephrine, or adrenaline. Higher blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and blood sugar levels follow.

But just as it can make its users feel good, it is also toxic. A lethal dose of nicotine is 30–60 milligrams (or a drop of pure nicotine in liquid form) for an average adult. Tobacco products don’t contain enough nicotine to be fatal, when used as directed. Cigarettes contain about 10 mg, where usually only one mg is actually inhaled. For children, the lethal dose is much smaller: 10 mg.

A similar alkaloid is cotinine. This substance is a product, or metabolite, that is formed in the body after nicotine consumption. Cotinine is used as a biomarker of tobacco smoke exposure.

Neogen offers multiple kits for cotinine detection, which are matrix-specific for urine and serum. Cotinine is the unique analyte that confirms nicotine metabolism.

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