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Nicotine Options For New Vapers: Selecting a Starting Level

So, you've decided to give vaping a try, but maybe you're a bit confused as to what all of these "nicotine levels" mean. This primer should help clear things up.

First, if you're not a former smoker or an aspiring former smoker, zero nicotine is the only level we can conscientiously recommend. While there is some scientific evidence that nicotine on its own is no more harmful to the body than other mild stimulants like caffeine when used properly, it's still a highly addictive drug and it can be dangerous, even lethal, in high enough doses. If you don't use it already, it's a good idea not to start – it won't get you "high" anyway, it's more likely to make you sick to your stomach.


That bit of housekeeping aside, let's consider how nicotine is measured, which is typically in the number of milligrams per milliliter of liquid (mg/ml) – this is often simplified to a number of milligrams, such as 3mg, signifying 3 mg/ml nicotine content.

For reference, cigarettes contain between 0.5 and 1.5 mg of nicotine, depending largely on the type of leaf burned and the efficiency of the filter ("light" cigarettes, even though they're not called that any more, usually just have a bigger filter that catches more of the nicotine before it enters your body).

The first thing to determine is what style of vaping you'll pursue: mouth-to-lung or direct lung inhales (or perhaps you prefer not to inhale at all). With the mouth-to-lung (MTL) style, you'll use a lower power setting and take smaller puffs – this is vaping in the same way you'd smoke a cigarette. Direct lung (DL) hits are more wide open, similar to taking a normal breath – these are the hits preferred by the vapers you see blowing huge, fluffy clouds.

MTL vaping uses a lot less e-liquid, at the expense of cloud production and flavor. Its benefits, however, also include reduced battery consumption and a familiar draw style to those aspiring to quit smoking. Big DL clouds, meanwhile, vaporize liquid at a pace that's much more rapid. For this reason, MTL vapers generally prefer a higher nicotine level than DL.

Another thing to consider is that nicotine uptake with vaping is considerably different than with smoking. When a substance is smoked, it's broken down into much smaller particles than when it's vaporized – on the downside this means more microparticles (including tar and all of the other nasties present in smoke but not in vapor) are absorbed into the lungs, mouth, nose, and throat. On the upside, it means that nicotine is also broken down into smaller particles and absorbed quickly along with all that other gunk. For this reason, vapers tend to "consume" more nicotine than smokers – while it's being vaped, it's not being absorbed into the body.

So, how much nicotine do you need? I'll offer myself up as an example.

My favorite cigarettes contained about 0.8 mg of nicotine (a little Google-fu can probably tell you about yours, or you can just use 1.0 mg as a reference point). Before I quit in July of 2013, I was smoking about 15 butts a day – 12 mg of nicotine.

Back then, the only devices available were low power, and MTL was the only game going. I vaped about 2.5 ml a day of 12mg, roughly two-and-a-half times the amount of nicotine that was in my stink-sticks (I've found over years of reading vape forums that this is about par for the course). If, however, I'd jumped straight for DL, I could have vaped 10 ml of 3mg a day, or 5 ml of 6mg, anyway.

Given the choice, I'd have probably still preferred the stronger stuff for the familiar inhale style and the sharp throat hit delivered by the extra nicotine. Eventually, as most vapers do, I switched to DL style and dropped the nicotine content dramatically in doing so.

Do the math for yourself, and you should be set with a good starting point – but don't feel like there are any hard and fast guidelines. I kept a tank of 18mg around when I was first quitting that I'd take a few puffs on when the cravings for a cigarette got particularly strong, and it helped me power through the last few "ritual" smokes (first in the morning, after meals, last at night). While cutting nicotine consumption may be a motivation for many aspiring vapers, there'll be time for that. Whatever works to keep you off cigarettes in the short term is the best nic level for you – after a month or two there'll be no going back to the bad old days, and you can work on dialing down then. Good luck!