Youths' Perceptions of Nicotine Harm and Associations With Product Use

Nicotine Tob Res. 2023 Jun 9;25(7):1302-1309. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntad028.

Abstract

Introduction: Although nicotine is the main addictive substance in tobacco, tobacco combustion is responsible for most tobacco-related diseases. U.S. adults hold misperceptions about nicotine harm. However, little is known about youth nicotine perceptions.

Aims and methods: To address this gap, we assessed U.S. youths' nicotine perceptions and how these perceptions relate to tobacco use. Participants were youth (ages 12-17) in waves 4 (w4; December 2016-January 2018; N = 14 798) and 4.5 (w4.5; December 2017-December 2018; N = 12 918) of the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health Study, a nationally representative longitudinal cohort study. We describe beliefs about nicotine; perceptions of the nicotine harm in cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and nicotine replacement therapy (NRT); and demographic differences. Regressions assess whether w4 nicotine perceptions predicted w4.5 tobacco use.

Results: Most youth correctly responded that nicotine is the main cause of addiction (77.1%) but incorrectly responded that nicotine is the main substance that causes smoking-related cancer (74.7%). Youth distinguished between the harm of nicotine in different products, and on average rated the nicotine in cigarettes as most harmful, followed by e-cigarettes and NRT. Among youth who did not use at w4, greater harm perceptions of nicotine in cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and NRT were associated with lower likelihood of reporting current tobacco use at w4.5. Among youth who currently used cigarettes or e-cigarettes at wave 4, nicotine perceptions did not predict switching to e-cigarettes or cigarettes, respectively, at wave 4.5.

Conclusions: These findings underscore the challenge of developing effective and comprehensive communication strategies that accurately convey the effects of nicotine without encouraging tobacco use.

Implications: Many U.S. adults have misperceptions about nicotine, incorrectly believing it is the substance that causes most smoking-related cancers; studies have not assessed youth's perceptions of nicotine and how these perceptions relate to tobacco use. This study found that similar to adults, most youth incorrectly believed nicotine is the main substance that causes smoking-related cancer; youth also distinguish between the harmfulness of nicotine in different products, and rated the nicotine in cigarettes as most harmful, followed by e-cigarettes and NRT. Perceptions of the harm in different nicotine and tobacco products negatively predicted becoming a person who used tobacco a year later, but did not predict switching between e-cigarettes and cigarettes. Findings highlight the challenges of accurately communicating about the harms of nicotine without encouraging tobacco use; findings can be considered in the context of FDA's potential nicotine product standard that would lower nicotine levels in combustible tobacco products to a minimally or nonaddictive level.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems*
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Neoplasms*
  • Nicotine / adverse effects
  • Smoking Cessation*
  • Tobacco Products* / adverse effects
  • Tobacco Use Cessation Devices

Substances

  • Nicotine