It's the Tar, Baby
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.