Most theories of dependence imply that repeated exposure to an addictive drug leads inexorably to dependence. We examined nicotine exposure in "tobacco chippers," who smoke regularly without developing dependence. Blood samples were obtained before and after 10 chippers (smoking up to 5 cigarettes per day) and 12 dependent smokers (20 to 40 cigarettes per day) smoked a cigarette. Chippers' blood nicotine levels increased significantly, in amounts equaling those of dependent smokers. Assays of cotinine (a long-lasting nicotine metabolite) also suggested that chippers' per-cigarette nicotine absorption equaled that of dependent smokers. Chippers' cotinine levels were also compared with those of heavy smokers (38 cigarettes per day) whose consumption was reduced to 5 cigarettes per day in a previously published study. The heavy smokers compensated by tripling their per-cigarette nicotine intake. Chippers did not seem to be compensating; their cotinine values equaled those expected when regular smokers were not compensating for reduced cigarette availability.