Estimating the Use of Tobacco and Nicotine Products Through Wastewater Analysis

ARC Linkage Project

This project aims to equip the Australian public health and security sector with a tool to accurately measure tobacco consumption in the general population. Specific human biomarkers in urine will be identified using nontarget approaches. The new data will address critical gaps in our knowledge on the population-level excretion of biomarkers for the consumption of tobacco and alternative nicotine products. The outcomes of this project will provide reliable, cost-effective estimates of tobacco consumption with wastewater-based epidemiology assessments. This will enable changes in tobacco use to be accurately evaluated for the first time and improve the efficacy of tobacco control measures.


This study has evaluated the suitability of anabasine and anatabine as more specific biomarkers for monitoring tobacco use in wastewater. Through analysing the urine and wastewater samples collected in Queensland, it was found that anabasine performed better as a biomarker, compared to anatabine. The per capita load of anabasine in both pooled urine and wastewater samples was similar, while anatabine had a 50% higher load in wastewater. When compared with tobacco sales data the anabasine-based estimates of tobacco use were slightly higher than sales data. These results confirmed the suitability of anabasine as a specific biomarker for monitoring tobacco use through wastewater-based epidemiology.

This study also focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on smoking behaviour in Australia. The study utilised nicotine consumption as a proxy for changes in smoking prevalence. The data from a national wastewater monitoring program was analysed, along with national sales data for nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products. The findings revealed that nicotine consumption in Australia decreased between 2017 and 2019 but increased in 2020, particularly during the early stage of the pandemic. The increase in nicotine consumption during this period may be attributed to factors such as higher stress levels, loneliness from COVID control measures, and increased opportunities to smoke/vape while working from home and during lockdowns. Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic may have temporarily disrupted the decreasing trend in tobacco and nicotine consumption in Australia.

Research Outputs

Thai, P.K., Tscharke, B.J., O’Brien, J., Gartner, C., Bade, R., Gerber, C., White, J.M., Zheng, Q., Wang, Z., Thomas, K.V. and Mueller, J.F., 2023. Increased Nicotine Consumption in Australia During the First Months of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Nicotine and Tobacco Research25(6), pp.1194-1197.

Zheng, Q., Gerber, C., Steadman, K.J., Lin, C.Y., Tscharke, B.J., O’Brien, J.W., Hobson, P., Toms, L.M., Mueller, J.F., Thomas, K.V. and Thai, P.K., 2023. Improving Wastewater-Based Tobacco Use Estimates Using Anabasine. Environmental Science & Technology.

Research Impact

Wastewater analysis allows for alternative and cost-effective methods for measuring nicotine and tobacco consumption in the population, which has led to work with ATO, looking at measuring illicit tobacco consumption.

Project members

Prof Kevin Thomas

QAEHS Director
and Theme Leader, Environmental Health Toxicology

A/Prof Phong Thai

Co-Theme Leader, Environmental Health Risk Assessment

Dr Ben Tscharke

Senior Research Fellow

Dr Jake O’Brien

Senior Research Fellow