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Carcinogenic tobacco-specific N-nitrosamines in US cigarettes: three decades of remarkable neglect by the tobacco industry
  1. Irina Stepanov1,
  2. Aleksandar Knezevich1,
  3. Liqin Zhang2,
  4. Clifford H Watson2,
  5. Dorothy K Hatsukami1,
  6. Stephen S Hecht1
  1. 1Masonic Cancer Center and Tobacco Use Research Programs, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
  2. 2Emergency Response and Air Toxicants Branch, Division of Laboratory Sciences, National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta Georgia, USA
  1. Correspondence to Irina Stepanov, Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, 420 Delaware Street SE – MMC 806, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455, USA; stepa011{at}


Background Modification of tobacco curing methods and other changes in cigarette manufacturing techniques could substantially reduce the levels of tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNA), a group of potent carcinogens, in cigarette smoke. In 1999, two major US cigarette manufacturers stated their intent to move towards using tobaccos low in TSNA. There is no information available on current TSNA levels in tobacco of various cigarettes available in the US, particularly in the newer varieties introduced over the past decade.

Methods Seventeen brands of cigarettes were purchased in April of 2010 from retail stores in Minnesota. TSNA levels were measured in the tobacco filler and smoke of these cigarettes.

Results In all brands, the sum of two potent carcinogenic TSNA - 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone and N'-nitrosonornicotine - in cigarette filler averaged 2.54 (±1.05) μg/g tobacco. This value is virtually identical to the sum of these two carcinogens reported for the tobacco of a US filtered cigarette in 1979. TSNA levels in smoke positively correlated with those in tobacco filler of the same cigarettes.

Conclusion We found no indication that any meaningful attempt was made to reduce or at least control TSNA levels in the new varieties of the popular brands Marlboro and Camel introduced over the last decade. In light of the recently granted regulatory authority to the FDA over tobacco products, regulation of TSNA levels in cigarette tobacco should be strongly considered to reduce the levels of these potent carcinogens in cigarette smoke.

  • Cigarette tobacco
  • cigarette smoke
  • nitrosamines
  • analysis
  • carcinogens
  • smoking
  • carcinogens
  • smoking caused disease

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  • Funding This study was supported by National Institutes of Health grants P50 DA-13333 as part of the Tobacco Harm Reduction Network and CA-81301.

  • Competing interests None to declare.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.