Are tobacco manufacturers secretly controlling nicotine levels?

This morning I noticed a news article in the online version of the Swedish/English newspaper, “The Local’ discussing claims that the Swedish tobacco Company “Swedish Match” had added a secret substance to some of their snus (Swedish moist snuff) products to make them more addictive. The article went on to document that the company acknowledges that it has introduced some new brands with higher nicotine levels, in response to “consumer demand”.

The article mentions that Swedish match deny adding a secret ingredient to make their products more addictive and quotes a Swedish Match official as saying that,

”We use it to stabilise the pH value in snus and have done so for 200 years,” (SM information director Henrik Brehmer).

Whenever I see articles like this I have to scratch my head a little bit and wonder what is new here? It is surely not a new idea that tobacco companies are designing their products to ensure that users will become or remain addicted to them. That is pretty much the entire basis for their whole industry! On the one hand news media try to sensationalize this from time to time by referring to “secret additives” and "spiking “ the product with nicotine, and on the other hand the tobacco industry representatives try to avoid use of words like “addictive’ and make it all sound like some natural or traditional production process that has nothing to do with nicotine levels or addiction. So let’s decode the quote from the SM representative. He pretty much admitted using an additive to control the pH of the product. It’s a widely known fact that the pH of the product is one of the main determinants of how much “free nicotine” is available in the product…..this being the form of nicotine that can easily be absorbed in the human body. Even fairly small adjustments to the pH of a smokeless tobacco product can cause a tenfold difference in the amount of nicotine the typical user will absorb. He referred to it as “stabilizing” the pH, but that means nothing as manufacturers always want to “stabilize” their products as a matter of quality control. It’s not a denial that they want to stabilize the pH at a level high enough to cause the user to get addicted to the high nicotine delivery.

But the issue of whether they are using a “secret” substance to control the pH or not doesn’t seem particularly important unless that substance is harmful in some other way. There’s really no surprise that they use additives to control pH and hence nicotine delivery. In fact I am much more surprised when a tobacco company fails to increase the pH of its product sufficiently to deliver an adequate dose of nicotine (as in the recent case of Marlboro Snus being test marketed in the USA).

So let’s get real. Tobacco companies are in the nicotine addiction business. They have known it for over 40 years and we have known it for over 20. They will typically develop products designed to deliver a dose of nicotine that consumers demand (i.e. get addicted to). Not everyone is the same, and so their products will vary in their nicotine delivery. I would expect any successful tobacco product to be able to deliver enough nicotine to sustain addiction. What I’m not so sure about is whether enabling a product to deliver much more nicotine than that will necessarily result in it being more addictive. It may just mean that the user ends up taking fewer “doses” because they can get more from each one (which may or may not cause it to be more addictive). The main thing we can be confident about is that so long as a product is capable of delivering a sufficient dose of nicotine to sustain addiction (at minimum an increase in blood nicotine concentration of around 8 ng/ml within 10-15 minutes of a standard unit dose), then each consumer will be able to use that product flexibly to meet their nicotine needs (i.e. to maintain their addiction). The nicotine patch delivers a higher “dose” of nicotine but the speed of delivery is too slow to produce reinforcing psychoactive effects and so is not addictive. For most users, 2mg nicotine gum doesn’t deliver enough nicotine fast enough to be satisfying/addictive (it gets a boost of 4-5 ng/ml in 20-30 minutes). Of course some users will use a lot of 2mg gum and put up with the taste for long enough to get addicted, but most do not. Incidentally, nicotine gum also has an alkaline additive to “stabilize” its pH and hence nicotine delivery.

Everyone considering using a nicotine delivery product, whether it be snuff, cigarettes or nicotine gum, should be aware that nicotine can be addictive and that the rate and amount of nicotine delivered will determine how satisfying (addictive) the product will be once you are used to it. Generally, smoked tobacco products are in a different league both in terms of speed of nicotine delivery and amount of harm done to the body, because the nicotine is delivered in smoke (along with 4000 other chemicals) directly into the lungs. Smoked tobacco is more addicting and MUCH more harmful. Generally the pharmaceutical nicotine replacement products are less addictive (satisfying) as they are designed to be used for a temporary period to help get you off cigarettes. Part of that design includes lower and slower nicotine delivery. Many researchers and clinicians feel that current nicotine replacement medications deliver too little nicotine too slowly to satisfy more highly addicted smokers. We are concerned that those smokers will either continue to smoke (and to die from it) or will switch to higher delivery smokeless tobacco products, rather than quitting tobacco altogether.

Tobacco companies definitely control the nicotine in their products and (via pH control) the nicotine delivered by their products. Its critical to their business.

Here is a link to the news article:

Here is a link to a Journal article on nicotine delivery from Marlboro Snus.
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About the Author

MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.