Regulations requiring a reduction of the nicotine content in cigarettes to minimally addictive levels could significantly reduce the public health impact of cigarette smoking. Clinical trials evaluating this strategy are ongoing and methods have been developed to use nicotine biomarkers to estimate compliance with use of very low nicotine content cigarettes (VLNCs). To date, these methods have not considered the potential contribution of nicotine absorption from environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) among research participants. This study used data from 100 randomly selected study completers in ongoing clinical trials of VLNCs (50 randomized to Usual Nicotine Content Cigarettes (UNCs) and 50 to VLNCs) to assess the use of plasma cotinine to estimate compliance. Plasma cotinine and smoking behavior were recorded at baseline after 2 weeks smoking UNC cigarettes, and then after 18 weeks of either continuing smoking UNCs or reducing the nicotine content such that the last 6 weeks comprised smoking VLNCs. Plasma cotinine remained stable (267 ng/ml) in the UNC group but reduced to 93 ng/ml in the VLNC group (p < 0.01). Compliance with smoking VLNCs was first estimated by comparing the cotinine per cigarette on VLNCs with UNCs after allowing for potential compensatory smoking. We found that 29 (58%) of the VLNC group were compliant. Adjusting for potential ETS exposure estimated 32 (64%) to be compliant. This latter group (n = 32) had a mean plasma cotinine on VLNCs of 7 ng/ml (range = 3–16.4 ng/ml). Adjusting for potential ETS exposure may improve identification of participants who plausibly complied with exclusive VLNC use.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)24-29
Number of pages6
JournalPreventive Medicine
StatePublished - Dec 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Epidemiology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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