One of the keys to successfully switching to vaping is choosing the correct nicotine strength.
In fact, it may be THE most important factor.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of incorrect information written about e-liquid nicotine strengths.
As a result, many smokers fail to switch to vaping.
Based on research, experience and an unusual French experiment, we put this guide together to help you choose the right nicotine strength.
- Understanding nicotine and nicotine strength
- Standard advice
- A French experiment
- What the research says
- Bringing it all together
Understanding nicotine and nicotine strength
Nicotine is an alkaloid which is usually considered the addictive element in tobacco.
But there’s strong evidence to suggest it is not the only addictive element in tobacco.
E-liquid contains nicotine, but not other addictive alkaloids (such as anabasine, anatabine and cotinine) found in cigarettes, and some research suggests that vaping may not be as addictive as smoking.
How is nicotine measured in E-Liquid?
E-liquid nicotine strength is measured in mg, with the mg equivalent to the strength in percentage terms.
Here's some examples:
- 0mg: 0%
- 3mg: 0.3%
- 12mg: 1.2%
- 18mg: 1.8%
- 20mg: 2%
The current maximum strength allowed in the UK and Europe is 20mg, or 2%. In reality, most e-liquids available in Europe and the UK contain a maximum of 18mg.
This is in stark contrast to a few years ago, when many heavy smokers and former smokers (around 9% of vapers at the time), used nicotine strengths higher than 19mg.
What’s the standard advice?
Typically, smokers are asked how many cigarettes they smoke.
Someone smoking 10 cigarettes a day might be advised to use an e-liquid with a strength in the region of 1%, for example, while someone smoking 15-20 cigarettes a day might be advised to use 1.4%.
Recommendations like these are overly simplistic, and don’t work for many vapers.
A French Experiment
Dr Jacques Le Houezec is a scientist and an expert in nicotine.
He’s also unusual in that he doesn’t just do research - he also likes to work with actual smokers.
At the E-Cigarette Summit in 2019, he described how he ran a training program for vape staff, which involved working with smokers.
He found two reasons smokers were failing to switch to vaping.
- A failure to inhale correctly
- A failure to use a high enough nicotine strength
Houezec estimated that for 25 - 30% of smokers, the current 2% nicotine limit is not sufficient, and that they need to combine vaping with nicotine patches.
He also warned that light smokers often need more nicotine than you might think.
My 12 years in the industry matches Houzec’s experience.
For example, we recently had a new starter who was trying to switch from smoking to vaping.
After a few weeks, I asked her how she was getting on, and she admitted she was still smoking a few cigarettes.
When I asked her what nicotine strength she was using, she told me 12mg.
I sent her some 18mg e-liquid, and within a week she had stopped smoking cigarettes entirely.
What does research say about e-liquid and nicotine strength?
A study by Gentry et al is one of the few to examine the link between nicotine strength and switching to vaping.
The authors found that people starting with a low nicotine strength were more likely to relapse than those starting with a high nicotine strength.
Another study by JUUL Labs looked at the differences in success rates between North America and the UK.
Nicotine levels in e-liquid are significantly higher in the US, and the majority of the people in the study used the highest nicotine levels available.
After one, three and six months, the numbers of people successfully switching from smoking to vaping was significantly higher in North America than it was in the UK.
There’s an urgent need for more research in this area, especially as some people will discount the JUUL study because it is industry funded.
Still, the current conclusions are pointing in one direction. A higher nicotine strength means you are more likely to successfully switch to vaping.
That said, there are many variables that can impact how much nicotine you need.
- The strength of cigarettes you smoke: If you smoke strong cigarettes, you may need more nicotine from your vape.
- The type of e-liquid you are using: Nicotine salts are smoother, making it easier to vape. Some vapers find that nicotine salts give them a faster nicotine hit than freebase e-liquids.
- The type of device you are using: More powerful devices produce more nicotine in the vapour than lower powered devices.
- Inhaling technique: Nailing the inhaling technique means you will absorb more nicotine.
- You: Everybody’s different, and your needs may vary from other people.
Experimentation is the key
The best thing you can do is to try different nicotine strengths.
You’re looking for something which will effectively assuage your cravings for a cigarette, without being so strong it blows your head off.
You don’t need to try every nicotine strength. Trying a high strength (for example, 1.8%) e-liquid and a medium strength e-liquid (such as 1.2%) will suffice for most people.
It’s also important to be clear about your goals and to only tackle one at a time.
You may well wish to quit nicotine entirely, but I’d advise you to tackle smoking first.
Nicotine may not be good for you, but it is not the cause of smoking diseases.
Once you have eliminated smoking, you have eliminated at least 95% of the harm of smoking.
So choose an e-liquid strength that works for you first, and worry about eliminating nicotine later.