How Much Nicotine Is In A Cigarette? Vaping vs Smoking, Patches & Inhalers

Ultimate guide to nicotine

Asking how much nicotine is in a cigarette is a complex question and depends on a number of factors. For example, the strength of the cigarette you are smoking and how much smoke you are breathing in is one factor among many.

Comparing cigarettes with vaping, nicotine patches and inhalers is not a simple thing to do, so we decided to put together this ultimate guide on nicotine to help you get a better idea of the best way to consume nicotine. We hope you enjoy!

How Much Nicotine Is In A Cigarette Explained:

  1. A brief history of nicotine
  2. What is nicotine?
  3. Why is nicotine addictive?
  4. How much nicotine is in a cigarette vs vaping?
  5. Is nicotine bad for you?
  6. What are the benefits of nicotine?
  7. What are nicotine patches?
  8. How effective are nicotine patches?
  9. What are the side effects of nicotine patches?
  10. Nicotine patches vs vaping, which is more effective?
  11. What are nicotine inhalers?
  12. How effective are nicotine inhalers?
  13. What are the side effects of nicotine inhalers?
  14. Nicotine inhalers vs vaping
  15. What are nicotine shots?
  16. Vaping for smoking cessation
  17. Is there any evidence that vaping is bad for you?

A brief history of nicotine

Nicotine use can be traced back to early human civilisation. Tobacco was first grown for recreational use as far back as 5000BC in what became Mexico and South America.

Mayan priest smoking

Originally used in ceremonies, smoking tobacco became a social activity shared with early European visitors to both North and South America.

Although it’s not known how tobacco first arrived in Europe, it was brought from Spain to France in 1560 by Jean Nicot and it’s from him we get the name nicotine and the spread of tobacco to France, England and other western countries.

The popularity of nicotine quickly grew around the world by the middle of the 1600s.

Initially it was consumed in pipes, or as snuff and chewing tobacco, hand rolled cigarettes initially used plant wrappers but switched to fine paper in the 1880s. Shortly after, a cigarette rolling machine developed in the 1880s by James Albert Bonsack allowed mass production of cigarettes.

During industrialisation, advertising and lifestyle changes led to smoking rates peaking around the middle of the 20th century in the U.S and UK. It would later decline in the later half of the century due to campaigning around the health concerns of tobacco.

Nicotine is a chemical naturally produced in the nightshade family of plants. It’s actually found in extremely tiny amounts in tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and aubergines.

What is nicotine?

Nicotine is a chemical compound with the formula: C₁₀H₁₄N₂. It is classified as a stimulant and parasympathomimetic alkaloid due to the fact it simulates and interacts with the central nervous system.

Nicotine chemical structure

Another example of a stimulant is caffeine, but the effect of a cup of coffee or a cola, comes from inhibiting the parts of the brain which trigger drowsiness and sleep, rather than nicotine triggering alertness.

First purified in 1828, pure nicotine is colourless and odourless with a chemical formula of C₁₀H₁₄N₂. Other drugs with the same formula include a number of antidepressants.

Why is nicotine addictive?

Nicotine is highly addictive for physical and psychological reasons. Not only does it activate existing nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the brain, it also triggers more to be developed.

It’s believed the additional receptors are the source of your cravings and withdrawal symptoms when you abstain from nicotine.

At the same time, the pleasurable dopamine response encourages psychological dependency which is why many people crave nicotine as part of their daily routine, whether that’s after a meal, socialising with alcohol, or before going to sleep.

How much nicotine is in a cigarette vs vaping?

The method and amount of nicotine absorption varies between different forms of smoking, vaping and nicotine cessation.

Nicotine amounts and absorption. Vaping vs Smoking.

The average amount of nicotine in a cigarette will vary between light and full-strength options, and between different brands.

While there can be between 8-20 milligrams of nicotine in a single cigarette, the average is typically around 12mg. Regardless of which you smoke you’ll generally only absorb around 1-1.8 milligrams of nicotine per cigarette

It’s difficult to state the average amount of nicotine in a vape or e liquid as a range of strengths will be available. Commonly you can choose from 0 to 18 or even 24mg liquid.

The number refers to the amount of nicotine per millilitre. The intake of nicotine will depend on a range of factors including your choice vapeware and your style of vaping.

It completely depends on how often you are vaping and the strength of eliquid you are using.

Let’s take an example. For a 12mg, 10ml bottle of e-liquid, there is a total of 120 milligrams of nicotine.

An average tank uses about 3ml of eliquid, if you vaped the whole tank in one session you would be consuming around 36mg of nicotine, which is the equivalent of around 4 average strength (8mg nicotine) cigarettes.

This is a crude comparison though, as there are many variables included. The difference between nicotine absorption from vapour vs smoke hasn’t been widely studied. One study did show that the nicotine absorption from vapour is weaker than smoke.

As for nicotine inhalers, the absorption isn’t as rapid or powerful, as you don’t take the nicotine into your lungs.

A nicotine inhaler cartridge is broadly equivalent to one cigarette, and there are limits on how many you should use per day depending on the strength and effectiveness of the particular inhaler you use.

By contract, nicotine patches are designed to release a constant and relatively consistent amount of nicotine to be absorbed through the skin.

Is nicotine bad for you?

Generally nicotine is not considered bad for your health, however, as with many chemicals and drugs, nicotine can be lethal in large amounts and it’s possible to experience nicotine poisoning if you consume too much.

That being said, It’s very unlikely anyone would overdose from using products containing nicotine.

The US Food and Drug Administration stated in 2013 that there are no significant safety concerns associated with the use of multiple over-the-counter nicotine replacement therapies at the same time, or while smoking or vaping.

Having too much nicotine will generally result in signs such as headaches and nausea which deter people from consuming too much.

Nicotine itself does not cause cancer. But there are various known side effects which can occur from nicotine, whether common or unusual.

Side effects can include dizziness and light-headedness, irregular and disturbed sleep, nausea, dry mouth, indigestion, peptic ulcers, diarrhoea and heartburn.

The likelihood of side affects can depend on whether you’re inhaling, swallowing or getting your nicotine through a patch. Most often, any side effect will be minor.

What are the benefits of nicotine?

Along with the pleasant sensation and mild pain relief mentioned earlier, the way that nicotine interacts with the brain has led to some medical research into potential benefits.

Many people will feel calmer during periods of anxiety and nicotine can help you become more alert and focused.

Some studies suggest that nicotine can have other positive effects. For example, this 2017 study suggests nicotine may be a way to help people suffering from schizophrenia.

A 2012 study showed nicotine may help with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and has led to a current two year research programme into whether nicotine can help people diagnosed with mild memory loss or MCI.

Studies have also looked at whether nicotine improves attentiveness and reaction times, such as this 1998 test.

Most scientific studies looking at the potential benefits of nicotine use patches as the delivery method. This ensures a relatively consistent amount of nicotine is delivered over a designated period of time, rather than the variation inherent in vaping or inhalers.

What are nicotine patches?

A nicotine patch is a smoking cessation device which can be placed on your skin, usually for 16 to 24 hours to deliver nicotine and help you quit smoking.

The idea is to provide a relatively constant amount of nicotine, removing physical cravings. By reducing the strength of the patches over time, they gradually lessen any nicotine dependence.

If you’re buying nicotine patches, the prices will vary depending on the brand and strength. You’ll typically spend around £1-2 per patch. The dosage tends to be 21mg, 14mg and 7mg.

There’s plenty of evidence that nicotine patches have around the same level of success in helping people quit smoking as any other nicotine replacement treatment.

One of the main benefits of patches is that people tend to use them as intended more often, but a study demonstrating this also suggests that patch users are more likely to accidentally take in too much nicotine.

How effective are nicotine patches?

A variety of studies have looked at the success rate of nicotine patches in helping people to stop smoking. The successful cessation rates vary, but a Cochrane review of 136 high quality studies featuring 64,640 people showed that NRT increases the chance of quitting by 50-60%.

This study of 504 smokers in London saw 21% of those using patches continued to abstain from smoking after 12 weeks.

Sometimes it’s suggested that smokers should “preload” by wearing a nicotine patch before trying to quit cigarettes. In a study looking at preloading, the best results came from switching from the patch to a drug treatment instead.

For the best results with patches, it’s recommended to also use another method to tackle the emotional and mental part of quitting.

What are the side effects of nicotine patches?

In addition to the general physical effects of nicotine, using patches can lead to itching, burning and redness on the skin. Especially as you need to find somewhere below the neck and above the waist without much body hair.

If you experience skin irritation, it’s possible to try different brands to alleviate the problem.

Other side effects associated more generally with nicotine include dizziness, a racing heartbeat, problems sleeping, nausea, muscle aches and stiffness.

Nicotine patches vs vaping, which is more effective?

Nicotine patches might appear to be fairly low effort compared to vaping and other alternatives to smoking. You just need to pick up some supplies and stick on a patch once a day.

However, there are downsides, particularly in comparison to vaping vs other forms of NRT.

Patches don’t tackle the psychological aspect of quitting, which is an advantage of vaping, especially if you opt for a Mouth-to-Lung kit which aims to replicate a similar technique to smoking a cigarette.

Vaping means you can still enjoy some of the pleasures of smoking, such as taking a break from your desk, or enjoying nicotine as a part of socialising.

It also reduces the chance of accidentally making yourself feel unwell by applying too large a dose to your skin.

We discuss the effectiveness of vaping vs other NRTs in more detail towards the the end of this article.

What are nicotine inhalers?

A nicotine inhaler is a plastic device which looks a bit like a cigarette and holds a nicotine cartridge.

Nicotine inhaler

When you draw on the end of the inhaler, nicotine is released to be absorbed through the mouth and throat, with a very low percentage going any further.

This means you don’t get the same type of hit as you do from a cigarette, or vaping to some extent. The nicotine also isn’t absorbed as quickly.

As a result, a cartridge that contains 10mg of nicotine will result in around 4mg being inhaled over a 20- or 40-minute period, and 2mg absorbed into the body. So, it’s roughly equivalent to one cigarette.

A typical nicotine inhaler will cost around £2 per cartridge to purchase in packs of 4 or 20.

A new nicotine inhaler has recently launched in the UK which is styled more like a traditional cigarette, with 20 charges (6-8 puffs each) at 0.45mg for £11.99.

That’s a very low level of nicotine compared to most smokers looking to quit, and the lack of vaporisation means a cold, medicinal experience compared with something like smoking.

How effective are nicotine inhalers?

Overall, a nicotine inhaler is broadly equivalent to other NRT products in making quitting cigarettes around 50-60% more likely. Evidence shows that it’s more effective to use an inhaler (or other NRT), to nothing at all, such as this study.

In a study comparing NRT options, the inhaler group achieved 24% abstinence after 12 weeks, compared with 21% for a patch.

However, the inhaler was also rated the most embarrassing product to use. And there was no evidence that any similarity to the feeling of smoking made it any more effective than the alternatives.

Side effects of nicotine inhalers

Known side effects of nicotine inhalers include coughing and irritation of the mouth and throat, headaches, and nasal problems. They can also cause indigestion.

Obviously, that’s in addition to general effects of nicotine exposure, including raising blood pressure, disturbed sleep, and heart palpitations.

Nicotine inhalers vs vaping

Although the idea behind both products may seem similar, there are substantial differences between nicotine inhalers and vaping. Inhalers don’t rely on vaporisation or absorption by the lungs, so they feel very different to smoking in practice.

The new inhaler is the first to be licensed as a medicine by the MHRA in the UK, as it essentially delivers nicotine in a similar fashion to an asthma inhaler.

Vaping is more effective as a direct swap for smoking cigarettes. Particularly as it’s easy to swap nicotine levels and settings to find the best way to meet your personal preferences. We will look into some studies on this towards the end of the article.

The vaporisation also means an experience which is closer to a cigarette, and it’s a more cost-effective solution which can be used to taper down your nicotine levels gradually over time.

What are nicotine shots?

Nicotine shots are 10ml bottles of unflavoured nicotine e-liquid.

Nicotine shots

They were largely introduced following the adoption of the Tobacco Products Directive by the EU, which limited the sale of e liquids containing nicotine to 10ml volumes.

The main reason for nicotine shots is convenience. By adding them to a larger bottle of e liquid which doesn’t contain nicotine, you can often save money, reduce plastic waste, and remove the need to carry multiple bottles with you.

They can also be used if you’re dedicated enough to create and steep your own e liquids. Or if you want to create a nicotine strength which isn’t readily available in 10ml bottles.

Almost all short-fill e liquid bottles for vaping will have enough empty space to add one or two nicotine shots, allowing you to reach your desired strength.

Manufacturers will generally make the flavours slightly stronger to accommodate the dilution from the nicotine shot.

Vaping for smoking cessation

A 2019 randomised control trial in the UK of 886 smokers saw 9% of people using NRT were non-smokers at one year, but 18% of those assigned e-cigarettes were non smokers at the same point.

Vaping as cessation

No serious problems were encountered by either group, but people using NRT were more likely to feel sick, and those on e-cigarettes reported less severe urges to smoke in the first month of changing.

The study did also find the group using e-cigarettes were far more likely to still be using them after 12 months.

In September 2019, a Yougov survey revealed an estimated 7.1% (3.6 million) adults in the UK are vaping. Of that number, just under 2 million (54%) are ex-smokers, 1.4 million are current smokers, and just 200,000 are ‘never smokers’.

An ongoing series of surveys suggests that vaping was responsible for an estimated 69,930 extra non-smokers in England in 2017 alone.

Two thirds of vapers who have quit smoking said that they found it more, or equally, satisfying as smoking.

Is there any evidence that vaping is bad for you?

Vaping is still relatively new, so long-term studies of any side effects are ongoing. But the available evidence led to Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians estimating that vaping is at least 95% less harmful than smoking.

And the Public Health England review also found that so far, there has been no identified health risks from passive vaping to those around you.

The UK also has one of the most comprehensive regulation systems for vaping, including minimum standards for quality and safety, and detailed notification of ingredients.

Rates of success in vaping vs other traditional nicotine methods

As referenced above, one of the few trials to compare NRT with vaping found that 9% of NRT users had quit at 12 months after beginning the trial, compared with 18% of e-cigarette users.

Our thoughts on smoking cessation

Whether or not you personally believe that the benefits of nicotine outweigh the potential side effects, it’s clear that smoking is the worst possible delivery system.

If you can’t quit cold turkey, then both NRT products and vaping will massively improve your chances of quitting a harmful and expensive habit.

Nicotine patches, inhalers and additional quit smoking support will all improve your chances of quitting smoking and provide a less harmful way to satisfy your cravings.

They’ll not only help you adjust, but they’ll also make the process less unpleasant for those around you!

Of all the options, vaping has been shown to be most successful in helping people to quit smoking as a percentage of those studied. It’s also the most cost effective if you can resist the urge to keep upgrading your vape kit and sampling new flavours.

Choose the right set-up and strength of e-liquid and you might be surprised at how easy it is to switch to vaping, especially if you’ve been unsuccessful with NRT products in the past.

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