Nicotine Buzz

According to a study published in the June 25 issue of Nature, some smokers carry a gene that impairs their ability to metabolize nicotine. According to studies published in the July 8 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, black smokers absorb more nicotine per cigarette than white smokers.

Both groups tend to light up less often, apparently for the same reason: Nicotine stays in their bloodstreams longer. Yet in newspaper coverage of the studies, the smokers with the defective gene were said to be especially resistant to nicotine addiction, while black smokers were said to be especially vulnerable.

The contradiction seemed to hinge on different definitions of addiction. In the Nature study, the researchers viewed smokers who metabolized nicotine inefficiently as less prone to addiction because they smoked less often. In the JAMA studies, the researchers began with the assumption that black smokers are more prone to addiction, despite the fact that they smoke less often, because previous research had indicated that blacks have a harder time quitting than whites.

One of the JAMA studies concluded that "higher nicotine intake...may help explain why blacks find it harder to quit." Although the reasoning behind that suggestion was not spelled out, the point was emphasized in newspaper reports, appearing in the first or second sentence of stories in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Boston Globe.

"Keeping nicotine in the body longer could enhance smoking's pleasurable effects," the Post speculated, thereby making it more addictive. But two weeks before, when the Post reported on the Nature study, "keeping nicotine in the body longer" was supposed to make smoking less addictive. In fact, the authors of the study suggested that interfering with the breakdown of nicotine "may be a new way to help prevent and treat tobacco smoking."

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