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Ammonia Added to Cigarettes Can Significantly Boost Availability of Nicotine, Says New Study


August 1997

Ammonia added to commercially made cigarettes can boost the availability of nicotine up to 100 times, says a new study by the Oregon Graduate Institute of Science and Technology in Portland. The study supports the claim of many critics of the tobacco industry that ammonia enhances the effect of nicotine, a claim that tobacco companies have denied (James F. Pankow, Brian T. Mader, Lorne M. Isabelle, Wentai Luo, Andrea Pavlick, and Cikui Liang, "Conversion of Nicotine in Tobacco Smoke to its Volatile and Available Free-Base Form Through the Action of Gaseous Ammonia," Environmental Science Technology, June 19, 1997, vol. 31, no. 8; , Press Release, "Nicotine Availability in Tobacco Smoke Enhanced by Ammonia," American Chemical Society News Service, July 1997; "Ammonia in Cigarettes Is Found to Boost Nicotine Impact 100 Times," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), August 1, 1997, p. B2).

The process of increasing the impact of nicotine by adding ammonia is called "free-basing," which is similar to the chemical process used to heighten the effects of cocaine. Like cocaine, nicotine exists in two forms -- acid and base. When ammonia is added, the nicotine converts from acid to base form. The base form can vaporize more easily from the smoke particles into the gas phase, enabling it to deposit directly on the lung tissue and immediately diffuse throughout the body.

Although the research has shown that ammonia makes nicotine more available from cigarette smoke, James F. Pankow, one of the authors of the study, warns that more research needs to be done to determine whether "the increased chemical availability translates into a more rapid uptake of nicotine by the smoker."