It's the Tar, Baby

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Michael Siegel has a characteristically sharp discussion of a recent report on nicotine levels in cigarettes. The research, based on a measurement procedure that is supposed to better approximate real smoking than the official "FTC method" used for the tar and nicotine numbers listed in ads and on packages, found that "actual nicotine yields of cigarettes have increased by approximately 10% over the period 1998-2004." Anti-smoking groups are predictably outraged, concluding that smokers are getting more nicotine than they used to and are more addicted than ever. But Siegel rightly insists that they can't have it both ways: On one hand, the activists fault tobacco companies for marketing their cigarettes with misleadingly low tar and nicotine numbers that don't take into account the tendency to compensate for reduced nicotine by smoking more cigarettes or smoking more intensely (covering ventilation holes, taking more puffs per cigarette, inhaling more deeply, holding the smoke longer). On the other hand, the activists assume smokers don't compensate for higher nicotine levels by smoking fewer cigarettes or smoking less intensely.

If anything, raising a cigarette's nicotine content should make it safer, since it means smokers will absorb smaller amounts of toxins and carcinogens for the same dose of nicotine, just as raising marijuana's THC content makes it safer because people can smoke less and get just as high. "In fact," Siegel writes, "one possibility that has been considered by public health practitioners (and tobacco companies) is the production of a high-nicotine, low-tar cigarette that would allow smokers to obtain current amounts of nicotine through fewer cigarettes, and therefore with lower tar delivery." When I made this suggestion to Philip Morris executives during an interview about 10 years ago, they responded with faux incomprehension: Why would we ever want to produce a high-nicotine, low-tar cigarette? Of course, that was back when they were still reserving judgment on the health effects of smoking and refusing to admit that nicotine's psychoactive effects had anything to do with the appeal of cigarettes.

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  1. Jacob,
    Don’t you know that there is no such thing as “self-dosing”? It is just a continuing sprial of greater and greater concentrations of the drug in question until a person dies of overdose. Just look at the bodies of all the pot smokers who have died from just this scenario in the last 3000 years.

  2. Have to agree that maximinzing the nicotine to tar ratio is a no brainer, for in 1997, I published ‘Making the world safe for cigarettes’ in Forbes-
    Whole thing here :

    http://keepmedia.net/pubs/Forbes/1997/09/08/1010794?ba=a&bi=0&bp=12

  3. It’s the Tar, Baby

    RASIST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Now there’s a subject not even I will touch.

  5. What’s wrong, Govenor Romney? Afraid to get your mitts on this problem?

  6. Afraid to get your mitts on this problem?

    RACEST!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. why doesn’t anyone make a high-nicotine, low-tar cigarette…hell anyone it doesn’t even have to be a cigarette maker.

  8. I think Ismael must be the same guy who tries to offer me “herbal v!AgR_@” every goddamn day. We ain’t buying, honeycakes.

  9. This is identical to the cries about marijuana being stronger than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Stronger product means less smoking, just that simple.

  10. On one hand, the activists fault tobacco companies for marketing their cigarettes with misleadingly low tar and nicotine numbers that don’t take into account the tendency to compensate for reduced nicotine by smoking more cigarettes or smoking more intensely (covering ventilation holes, taking more puffs per cigarette, inhaling more deeply, holding the smoke longer). On the other hand, the activists assume smokers don’t compensate for higher nicotine levels by smoking fewer cigarettes or smoking less intensely.

    The activists can be real nutjobs at times, but I really don’t see a contradiction here. If the change in behavior in the former case is based on the smoker’s belief that the cigarette contains less nicotine, then the analogy breaks down as there is no corresponding belief in the latter case–that the cigarettes have increased nicotine levels is new information (and presumably won’t be advertised). If the situation is viewed in terms of the body’s reaction to nicotine, I still see no contradiction: If a smoker wants at least x units of nicotine then a low tar/nicotine cigarette will result in behavioral changes to reach x. If the level is increased then the smoker might just gladly go along for the ride. x – n = behavioral change, x + n = hey, these are good, man! Gimme some more of that!

    Am I missing something here? Help me out.

  11. The Washington Post had a front-page article on this subject yesterday, peeing in their panties.

    What really struck me was that they are using the exact same language and scare tactics as the drug warriors.

    Someone explain to me how this is so NOT profoundly hypocritical… modern liberals colluding with the drug war.

    joe?

  12. Cigarette smoke is now of significantly higher quality and purity. That’s good news. Hurray for smokers!

  13. Found it kind of late, but here it is just for the beauty of the language. From BoingBoing.

    “Tobacco companies increased nicotine in kids’ and minorities’ cigs
    A new study shows that tobacco companies have been quietly increasingly (sic) the nicotine in the brands most smoked by kids and minorities for the past decade, increasing the toxicity and addictiveness of their products.”

    Priceless.

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