Rising Nicotine in Cigarettes Could Lead to Litigation

Bill Roberts has been a pack-a-day smoker for years.

And if the Chicago-based 30-year-old's lack of concern over the news that cigarette companies have been steadily raising nicotine levels in cigarettes is any indication, it is likely that he will continue his pack-a-day habit for many more years to come.

"Personally, this is not something that bothers me," Roberts says. "I am aware of the health risks of smoking. I do not believe that this is something that is good for me.

"Increased nicotine levels seem to come part and parcel with the compromises that you are willing to make to your health to smoke."

Roberts' nonchalance, though perhaps not shared by all smokers, may indicate one of the chief problems when it comes to tackling smoking as a public health issue.

And with the finding of increased nicotine levels in cigarettes, public health experts say that even those smokers who are willing to quit may have a harder time doing so.

However, the new study confirming that cigarette companies have been steadily increasing levels of addictive nicotine in its cigarettes could change the way the government deals with the tobacco industry.

And some public health experts suggest the findings may also lead the public into another round of litigation against cigarette companies.

The study by the Harvard School of Public Health, published in the current issue of the medical journal Lancet, shows that manufacturers increased nicotine levels in their products by close to 11 percent between 1997 and 2005.

"The cigarette is a reservoir, so the cigarette companies are increasing the potential of the smoker to extract nicotine," says Gregory Connolly, the lead author of the study.

The study's researchers say the findings are troubling with regard to both current smokers, for whom the nicotine increases could affect their addiction to cigarettes, and young smokers, who could get addicted to the more potent cigarettes more easily.

"The research has been done, showing that even just one exposure to nicotine triggers changes in the brain that put a child at risk of becoming a smoker," says Hillel Alpert, research analyst at the Harvard School of Public Health and an author of the study.

"Increased nicotine in a cigarette means an increased potential for it to change the brain."

"If you want kids not to become addicted to smoking, the levels should be going down, not increasing," Connolly says.

'Trend Is Not Random'

The study confirms the findings of previous research conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in August 2006 that suggested nicotine content in cigarettes was on the rise. The earlier study indicated a roughly 10 percent increase in nicotine levels in cigarettes from 1998 to 2004.

But now that a second study has confirmed the rise, many are asking whether the increase is deliberate or simply a fluke.

Carolina Group -- the tracking stock for the Newport, Kent and other tobacco brands owned by Lowes Corp. -- said "no comment" to ABC News' request for a response on the Harvard study. But at least one tobacco company has come forward to deny that increasing nicotine levels are deliberate.

"R.J. Reynolds does not have a program to systematically increase the nicotine content or smoke nicotine yields of its products," said Jeff Gentry, executive vice president of research and development for R.J. Reynolds, in a statement issued Thursday.

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