Study: Does Switching to a Lower-Nicotine Liquid Really Make a Difference?
Many vapers start with an intention to gradually switch to no-nicotine vaping. E-liquids are perfectly-designed for it, with a progressive reduction in nicotine strengths from 18 mg/ml (or higher) down through 12 mg/ml, 6 mg/ml, 3 mg/ml and then finally zero nicotine. The good news is that many vapers have made this journey, and have gotten a long part of the way towards no-nicotine e-liquids. But the picture isn’t really as simple as this, and a recent study shows that in many cases, reducing your nicotine level doesn’t actually affect the amount of nicotine you’re consuming on a day-to-day basis. So are the lower nicotine levels even useful? Should you be worried about consuming the same amount of nicotine as you were when you started vaping?
Reducing Nicotine Strength: In Theory vs. In Reality
In theory, reducing the nicotine strength of your liquid seems like it would almost certainly mean you consume less nicotine. If you’re vaping 18 mg/ml but a year later you’re vaping 3 mg/ml, then you must be consuming less, right?
The meaning of the nicotine strength of e-liquid explains part of the issue. The amount is milligrams per milliliter (mg/ml), so it crucially depends on the amount of liquid you consume too. If you have 2 ml of 18 mg/ml e-liquid, you have consumed 36 mg of nicotine. When you vape 6 ml of 6 mg/ml e-liquid, you’ve also consumed 36 mg of nicotine.
If people vaped in exactly the same way after reducing nicotine strengths, then you’d consume less nicotine with lower-strength juice. But they don’t. In fact, one of the most common reasons people reduce their nicotine strength is because they’ve switched to higher-power vaping with sub ohm tanks. This consumes more liquid with every puff, and vapers who switch to sub ohming almost invariably get through more liquid per day afterwards.
On top of this, you have the issue that later-generation e-cigarettes are more efficient at getting nicotine into your bloodstream. Both of these factors have the same potential consequence: upgrading hardware as you reduce nicotine strengths could cancel each other out. This is exactly what the study set out to test.
The Study: Do Vapers Consume Less Nicotine Over Time?
The researchers set out to answer a simple question: as vapers reduce the nicotine strength of their e-juice and upgrade their hardware, does the amount of nicotine that makes it to their bloodstream change? They tested this by recruiting 32 vapers – although 5 dropped out during the study, leaving a sample of 27 – and giving them questionnaires at the start of the study and 12 months later. As well as this, they also tested their saliva for cotinine levels, which is the main substance your body turns nicotine into.
Over the course of the year-long study, the percentage of participants reporting sub ohm vaping increased from 30 to 44 %, and the average nicotine level significantly decreased from 13.8 mg/ml to 9.9 mg/ml. At the same time, the amount of e-liquid consumed per day increased from 4.4 to 6.8 ml, again a significant difference. This very much reflects the trends in the industry over time.
The cotinine measurements confirm the results of a similar study conducted previously: cotinine levels didn’t change significantly over the study period. If anything, the average levels actually increased slightly. Despite reducing nicotine strength, the other changes in the way the participants vaped means that they consumed just as much – if not more – nicotine each day.
The authors conclude:
“The current study has demonstrated that a reduction in nicotine e-liquid concentration (mg/mL) does not translate to a reduction in nicotine absorption, possibly because vapers engage in some form of compensatory puffing and changes in device characteristics resulting in the consumption of greater e-liquid volume. Therefore, any perceived health or addiction-reducing benefits may not be borne out.”
The Benefits of Higher Nicotine Liquids
One important point raised by the authors of the study is that consuming more liquid isn’t necessarily a good thing. While the levels of any harmful chemicals are generally much lower in vapor compared to smoke, the more e-liquid you vape, the more of them you consume. So vaping more e-liquid is probably more risky than vaping less. It won’t make vaping as bad as smoking, but it could easily put some vapers at greater risk than others. Like dry-burning coils, consuming a large amount of low-strength e-liquid could be an avoidable risk compared to consuming less of a high-strength e-liquid.
This is the major benefit to higher nicotine e-liquid. Getting a Black Note e-liquid in 18 mg/ml rather than 3 mg/ml will mean that you need to consume less e-liquid to get a satisfying amount of nicotine, and this probably makes vaping slightly safer.
The Benefits of Lower-Strength Nicotine E-Liquids
But it should go without saying that there is a reason vapers are switching to lower-nicotine e-liquids. When you switch to sub ohm vaping with a mod, the amount of vapor your device produces with each puff increases massively, the flavor you get from the e-liquid generally improves and the whole experience is arguably more satisfying from a sensory perspective. If you want to cloud chase, perform tricks or really revel in your flavor, sub-ohming is the way to go.
The downside in terms of this discussion is that higher-strength e-liquids are much harsher to vape on a sub ohm device, and they’re really better for smoking-like, lower-power, mouth-to-lung devices. If you’ve ever tried sub ohm vaping with an 18 mg/ml e-liquid, you’ll know exactly what I mean: the throat hit from the nicotine becomes very harsh.
So if you’re looking for the top-end performance you get with sub ohm devices – and you don’t have an almost inhuman resistance to throat hit – reducing the nicotine strength of your e-liquid is really the only way to do so comfortably.
Should We Be Worried About Addiction?
One concern some vapers may have about higher-strength e-liquids is addiction. After all, basically all regular vapers are doing so because we got addicted to nicotine through smoking. Nicotine is ultimately what brought us to vaping. On some level, people may feel “trapped” because it’s hard to go without your daily nicotine. Reducing your nicotine strength feels like making progress and getting closer to being free from nicotine altogether. But this study shows that it probably doesn’t mean that in practice.
Should we be worried about this? Only you can really answer this for yourself, but from my perspective the answer is no. The most important thing is that you aren’t smoking anymore. Avoiding addiction might be ideal, but avoiding dangerous combusted tobacco should be your number one priority. If it takes a certain amount of nicotine to help you avoid smoking, then so be it. You may still have a dependence on nicotine, but you’ve taken an important step by making that dependence less risky to yourself and those around you.
If you still want to break free of nicotine, there are ways you can manage your consumption down by vaping. Unfortunately though, it isn’t as simple as just switching to a lower-strength juice.
What’s the Best Approach for Vapers? Is There a Middle-Ground?
The big issue is that if you want better performance, it’s hard to find it in a device you can comfortably use with higher-strength e-juice. But is there a way around this?
There are a few suggestions you could try out.
Strike the Right Balance With Your Nicotine Strength
Firstly, and most simply, you could choose your nicotine strength carefully. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to tolerate the throat hit of 18 mg/ml on a sub ohm, high power device. But that doesn’t mean you need to drop down to 3 mg/ml. Try 12 mg/ml or 6 mg/ml e-liquids, or basically the highest you can tolerate. Then you can enjoy the sub ohm experience without increasing your juice consumption as much as some vapers do.
Try Mouth-To-Lung Devices
Mouth-to-lung inhales are what smokers feel most comfortable with. Although options used to be limited, there are many modern devices that offer this experience with much better performance. For instance, the Innokin Endura T20 is a solid device specifically designed for mouth-to-lung vaping. With a device like this, you’ll get excellent flavor and great vapor production, but it won’t hurt your throat too much if you use it with high-strength e-juice.
Try Pod Mods and Nicotine Salts
The last option makes use of “pod” devices like the Juul, the Suorin Drop or the Smok Infinix. These are designed to use much higher strength e-liquids in a very user-friendly format. The pods won’t put out anywhere near as much vapor as a sub ohm tank. However, they do offer a very satisfying vaping experience all the same.
However, a good option is to use nicotine salt e-liquids without necessarily switching to a pod vape. Nicotine salt e-juice is less harsh on your throat, even for higher nicotine strength e-juice. This means you could get a really high-nicotine juice (even 30 mg/ml or higher) but not get unbearably harsh throat hit. You could even get an 18 mg/ml nicotine salt e-liquid and use it with a higher-power device to get the best of both worlds.
What About Reducing Your Nicotine Consumption?
If you actually want to consume less nicotine, all you have to do is think about more than just the nicotine strength of your e-juice. Keep track of the amount of e-juice you consume. Alternatively, just the number of puffs you have per day if you can’t track your juice consumption. If you have fewer puffs and consume less e-juice, even if you don’t change nicotine strength, you’re reducing your nicotine intake. This may be challenging, though, so take it steady and reduce your consumption over time. If you change to a lower-strength e-juice, either run the numbers (strength × e-juice consumed = nicotine consumed) or just stick to the same juice consumption to be sure you’re actually reducing.
Vape Your Way, But Keep This Study in Mind
Nobody can tell you how to vape. If you want to sub ohm with a low-strength juice, more power to you. If you want to reduce your nicotine consumption, you should be proud of that decision. And if you don’t, that’s cool too. But this study – and the older one with the same result – is one you should keep in mind. Reducing nicotine strength is not the same as reducing the nicotine you consume, and you need to remember that if you want to become nicotine-free one day.