Tobacco

Are Nicotine Levels Rising? Should We Care?

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Last summer the Massachusetts Department of Public Health made headlines with a report that found the nicotine yields of major cigarette brands increased by an average of 10 percent between 1998 and 2004. Last week researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health expanded on that report with a study finding an increase of 8.5 percent between 1997 and 2005. Activists once again cited the trend as evidence of the tobacco companies' secret plot to make cigarettes more addictive and demanded stricter regulation of the industry.

It seems the cigarette makers are not very good at covering their tracks, since they are the source of the data on which both studies were based. (They are required to report the numbers to the Massachusetts Department of Health each year.) In any case, the rise in nicotine yields is not as clear as the industry's critics imply. Anti-smoking activist and tobacco policy blogger Michael Siegel did his own analysis of the data and found "there was no change in the average nicotine yield of Marlboro cigarettes from 1997 to 2006." By contrast, the Harvard study found "a statistically significant increasing trend of 0.013 mg per year" for the 15 Marlboro sub-brands from 1997 to 2005. Philip Morris, for its part, says the nicotine yields of its cigarettes go up and down over the years due to natural variations in tobacco but have not been deliberately raised and have in fact not increased on balance. Over at Slate, Jack Shafer notes that Philip Morris cites variations in the nicotine yields of research cigarettes, which are designed to be as uniform as possible, to back up its point. 

Assuming the Harvard researchers are right that nicotine yields are slightly higher now than they were a decade ago, so what? "All cigarettes are highly addictive and deadly, and relatively minor changes in nicotine yield may not significantly alter the product's addictive properties," they write. "The increase in smoke nicotine yield does not necessarily signify any change in exposure within the population of smokers, particularly as human smoking behavior is compensatory and will adjust for differences in smoke yield." (Italics added.)

That last point, which Siegel and Shafer rightly emphasize, is crucial: As with pot smokers and THC, cigarette smokers tend to smoke as much as necessary to get the nicotine dose to which they're accustomed. If you cut the nicotine yield, they will smoke more cigarettes and/or smoke more intensely, taking more puffs per cigarette, inhaling the smoke more deeply, holding it longer, etc. The upshot is that cutting nicotine content, other things being equal, makes cigarettes more dangerous, because it increases the dose of toxins and carcinogens for a given dose of nicotine. Conversely, increasing the nicotine yield while leaving other aspects of the cigarette unchanged should make smoking less hazardous.

So what exactly is troubling about the alleged increase in nicotine yields? Not that cigarettes are more dangerous; if anything, they're slightly safer. Not that cigarettes are more addictive; the data do not even show that smokers are absorbing more nicotine than they did before, and the research on compensatory smoking behavior suggests they aren't. Here is the best the authors of the Harvard study can do: "The product changes described in this report may…represent an effort by tobacco manufacturers to enable persons of lower income to sustain prior levels of nicotine intake, even with a consumption of fewer cigarettes on the assumption that prices would increase due to litigation during this time period." In other words, the cigarette companies, which did not hesitate to screw over smokers when they settled the state tobacco lawsuits, stand accused of trying to cushion the blow of the resulting price increases. The bastards?

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  1. “In other words, the cigarette companies, which did not hesitate to screw over smokers when they settled the state tobacco lawsuits, stand accused of trying to cushion the blow of the resulting price increases. The bastards?”

    No they stand accused of making so people smoke fewer cigarettes and pay less taxes and cut into the government’s take. How dare they do that.

  2. I don’t think there’s a thing the tobacco companies can do that will get them good publicity.

  3. Marlbora Lights Ice – I should copyright that name while I can.

  4. JB-
    In East Bumbleweed today, four tobacco company executives banded together to rescue several kittens found floating down a river in a leaky box.
    Experts are describing the rescue as a cynical ploy to improve the image of the tobacco industry, and an attempt to sell their products to pre-teen girls.
    “I believe that those kittens were a plant,” said Prussia Nanny, a spokesperson for the anti-tobacco group Think of the Children.
    The kittens could not be reached for comment, but their attorney stated that they are considering filing a class-action lawsuit against Phillip Morris. “We’ll figure out the cause of action later,” said Alan Bulanchaser, the kittens’ attorney.

  5. #6: you’re #1!

    hilarious!

  6. Since alcohol is arguably a more serious and costly danger to American lives and prosperity than tobacco, shouldn’t we be talking about Old Grandad Special Selection, Black Bush, or Bicardi 151 instead of goddam Marlboros.? I suspect that logic and individual rights aren’t really a factor in this game, and haven’t been for a long time.

    IMHO, Black Bush is really worth a sampling if you like whisky.

  7. It’s got to be the quietest “new and improved” campaign ever….

  8. The whole “tobacco is stronger now than it was in the ’90s” schtick is too close to the “pot is stronger now than it was in the ’60s” schtick for me to take it seriously.

  9. The levels to which you smokers will go to maintain your delusions are incredible.

    Get a clue: the tobacco companies are playing you for the incredible fools that you are. (And to make it all that much better, they’ve gotten rich in the process.) You think you’re just being “free.” In actuality you’re killing yourselves with a product THAT’S DESIGNED to kill you. They have so twisted your thinking that you’re willingly killing yourselves just to live up to the image their advertisements would have you portray.

    Idiots. I mean, really: how stupid can you be?

  10. Idiots. I mean, really: how stupid can you be?

    As stupid as mountain climbers, skydivers, and the obese. No more, no less.

  11. “IMHO, Black Bush is really worth a sampling if you like whisky.”

    Black Bush is great even if you don’t drink at all.

  12. J sub D wrote:
    >> Idiots. I mean, really: how stupid can you be?
    > As stupid as mountain climbers, skydivers, and > the obese. No more, no less.

    Hardly. 1 in 5 mountain climbers or skydivers do not die from their chosen activity.

    The obese: well, they have their problems too. You really want to justify your stupidity by appealing to their plight?

  13. Kevin-What makes you think that this board is full of smokers? It seems as though you equate skepticism about a particular set of numbers, or about attempts to restrict tobacco use as an indication that we smoke. That’s simply wrong. Most of us on this board favor the legal recognition of gay marriage. Not many of us are gay.
    Most of us favor the decriminalization or legalization of drugs. That doesn’t mean that all, or most, of us use drugs.
    Most of us favor a free market. That doesn’t mean we’re all business owners.
    Most of us would oppose a government attempt to ban the wearing or burkas or yarmulkes. That doesn’t mean we’re Muslim or Jewish.

    Get it yet?

    It’s about freedom and what’s right, not about using laws, or lack of laws, to pursue our own interests.

    One other thing: if you’re looking for converts, rather than just hoping that someone will notice how brilliant and intellectually superior you are, you might want to tone down the name calling.

  14. Let me withdraw my comment about the plight of the obese.

    Smoking kills ~4e3/(1/5)*300e6 every year.

    Obesity kills ~4e3/300e6 every year, only 1/5 the smoking rate.

    So, it would seem, smokers are 5 times stupider than the obese.

  15. Hardly. 1 in 5 mountain climbers or skydivers do not die from their chosen activity

    But if they did it 20 times a day…?

  16. Got some numerators wrong:

    Smoking kills ~400e3/(1/5)*300e6 every year.

    Obesity kills ~400e3/300e6 every year, only 1/5 the smoking rate.

    So, it would seem, smokers are 5 times stupider than the obese.

  17. Most of us on this board favor the legal recognition of gay marriage. Not many of us are gay.
    Most of us favor the decriminalization or legalization of drugs. That doesn’t mean that all, or most, of us use drugs.
    Most of us favor a free market. That doesn’t mean we’re all business owners.
    Most of us would oppose a government attempt to ban the wearing or burkas or yarmulkes. That doesn’t mean we’re Muslim or Jewish.

    Most of us favor the decriminalization of prostitution. That doesn’t mean that most of us . . .

    Uh, never mind.

  18. People like Kevin make me want to become a tobacco executive. Piss busybodies like him off *and* get rich doing it? Sounds like a dream job!

  19. Kevin: I wouldn’t call somebody stupid unless I thought they knew less about the world than I. You, apparently, are basing your entire argument on your thin, little slice of experience. What if a person is suicidal but the chemical relief from cigs and pot keeps him alive until his life gets better? Is that cigarette smoker 5x more stupid than some fatso? There are a gazillion other examples, but basically your whole argument rests on the assumption that we all want to live until we’re 200 with tubes stuck up our noses. I can only imagine what you think of motorcycle people….

  20. J sub D wrote:
    >> Hardly. 1 in 5 mountain climbers
    >> or skydivers do not die from
    >> their chosen activity

    > But if they did it 20 times a day…?

    Let’s stick to the facts, and not to simply imagining them.

  21. Lamar wrote:
    > What if a person is suicidal but the chemical > relief from cigs and pot keeps him alive
    > until his life gets better?

    A very, very weak argument. Can you cite one instance–just one–where this has been the case?

    > Is that cigarette smoker 5x more stupid than > some fatso?

    The evidence seems to say: Yes.

    > There are a gazillion other examples, but
    > basically your whole argument rests on the
    > assumption that we all want to live until
    > we’re 200 with tubes stuck up our noses.

    Spoken like a true (deluded) smoker. And, in fact, not true at all. My argument merely rests on the assumption that we do not want to die from lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and strokes. If you haven’t noticed, that is how smokers die, and it is how you will die if you are a smoker. They are horrendous, ugly, tragic deaths, stupid and pitable, and not at all some last final cry of “freedom!” When you are left reed thin and struggling to breathe, I want you to write us here again to tell us how worthwhile your smoking habit was.

  22. Jesus Kevin, you are the idiot. Cigarettes weren’t designed to kill; it’s a rather unfortunate side effect. Exactly how would Big Tobacco benefit from killing it’s customers? Really, give it some thought before you post your outrageous bullshit.

  23. Kevin:
    I contend that smoking a single cigarette is less dangerous than jumping out of a single airplane. Do you disagree? Any stats on that?

  24. You should all ignore Kevin, he is clearly just trolling for attention.

  25. Troll feeding time already? Everyone drink!

    Or do we just have a clueless, ex-smoker wingnut?

  26. Sorry to troll feed, but I’m stuck in the office till 5, so…

    Who the fuck are you to tell me how I want to die?

    Apologies for the obscenity, but I felt it necessary to express my true feelings.

  27. Nicotine is a stimulant, the DRUG. I’ve never seen any research to show that nicotine is any more dangerous than caffeine. It’s the delivery device, the cigarrett, that’s deadly, not the drug.

  28. Actually, Kevin,

    Nicotine causes the brain to produce two important neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine. When your brain produces insufficient levels of these chemicals, you get really really depressed.

    A significant portion of those who smoke heavily are thought to be self medicating themselves to treat depression – giving nicotine to depressed non-smokers has shown promise.

    For some people 30 more years of a happy life is of much greater value than 50 years of clinical depression. Personally, I wouldn’t call them stupid.

  29. pigwiggle wrote:
    > Cigarettes weren’t designed to kill; it’s a
    > rather unfortunate side effect.

    Really, what difference does it make if you are killed by their primary reason for existence, or by their side effects?

    And I see, pigwiggle, that you are still yet incapable of disagreement without recourse to profanity and ad hominem remarks. You really must learn to control yourself, boy.

  30. JW wrote:
    > Or do we just have a clueless,
    > ex-smoker wingnut?

    I assure you that I am not so stupid as to be either a smoker or an ex-smoker. I knew from early on that smoking was for suckers.

  31. tarran wrote:
    > Actually, Kevin,
    > Nicotine causes the brain to produce
    > two important neurotransmitters,
    > dopamine and norepinephrine. When
    > your brain produces insufficient
    > levels of these chemicals, you
    > get really really depressed.

    Then you shouldn’t have any trouble producing just one case of suicide induced by smoking cessation. Please name this particular person, and their date and place of death.

  32. Thomas Ware wrote:
    > I’ve never seen any research to
    > show that nicotine is any more
    > dangerous than caffeine. It’s the
    > delivery device, the cigarrett,
    > that’s deadly, not the drug.

    And this is relevant in exactly what way? So you’re killed by the side effect instead of by the primary purpose. One necessarily accompanies the other. Both are just as deadly–and just as stupid. I fail to see any significant distinction.

  33. “Can you cite one instance–just one–where this has been the case?”

    Moi. And my father died in a motor vehicle accident, not from lung cancer as your silliness seems to suggest. Don’t worry though, you’ll grow up and realize that numbers rarely prove a case because even a small percentage can mean a large number of people. I agree that I may be self-destructive, but you’ll have to agree that you know very little about the world.

  34. I hereby apologize for referring to Pigwiggle up above as “boy.” It’s just that, seeing as how he has so little control over his emotions, I assume he is not a “man.” I was just going with the next best alternative. My bad.

  35. Kevin does an excellent job of being such a bullying, self-righteous, arrogant prick that he alienates anyone who might depart from his views even slightly, doesn’t he?

  36. Kevin is an obvoius idiot, who must watch too much TV or MSM

  37. Kevin,

    I would be happy to do that if you will indulge me in return:

    Since smoking is so deadly, you should have no problem identifying a person who caught cancer from smoking a cigarette from the tenth lot produced by RJ Reynolds in March of 1975. Please identify where they purchased and smoked that cigarette that gave them cancer.

    😉

  38. Really, what difference does it make if you are killed by their primary reason for existence, or by their side effects?

    All the difference in the world if you are claiming they were designed to kill. But I’ll just chalk that up to you running of at the mouth without the requisite thought; an apparent habit.

    And I see, pigwiggle, that you are still yet incapable of disagreement without recourse to profanity and ad hominem remarks.

    Pfftht? Welcome to the internet, Kevin. If it’s a bit much for you, perhaps you can track down someone bright enough to pull the plug on your behalf; retire to your fainting couch safe from the currish imposition.

    Weenie.

  39. Actually, about one in twelve high altitude mountaineers develop some medical complications which can and do shorten their life span. I think REI and BLACK DIAMOND should be sued. Sir Edmund Hillary is the worst, and that dastardly role model Tensing Norgay. Just like the Marlboro man.

  40. I know a quicker way to die from cigarettes than smoking: Try keeping me from smoking on my own property.

  41. I think I’ll sit in the front row at commencement this year, and light a Camel when the HSPH awards an honorary doctortate to The Man, The Very Fat Man, That Waters The Workers Beer.

  42. the cig companies are so pwnd by the “big douche bag” interests.

  43. Then you shouldn’t have any trouble producing just one case of suicide induced by smoking cessation. Please name this particular person, and their date and place of death.

    Depression does not always cause its sufferers to commit suicide.

    It does however cause people to lead unhappy, frequently unfulfilled lives. For some every day is a chore and any relief is welcome.

  44. It should be mentioned that in the German-speaking nations (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) the name Kevin is given only to the sons of really stupid people from the underclass.

  45. No big surprise, but the NYT editorialized today on this topic. They see the manipulation of nicotine levels as proof that the government should step in and mandate lower levels.

    I don’t get that, even a little. Since it’s mostly (but not exclusively) the smoke that’s harmful, and since it’s well known that smokers will regulate their own dose, shouldn’t we rather have high nicotine levels, to reduce the number of cigarettes smoked?

  46. “Kevin is an obvoius idiot, who must watch too much TV or MSM”

    More like too many Truth commericials

  47. Wow. How much are Philip Morris paying you? This is like the third pro-tobacco post in a week. Ah well, this must be what they mean by a free market in ideas.

  48. If cigarettes are as harmful as they are being made out to be, why are they not illegal? Sure the government is looking out for your interests. They really are. Let’s see this for what it really is. Money plain and simple. The government gets a cut when someone buys tobacco and then they get another cut from the manufacturer because of the settlement agreement. I find it convient that no one mentions who the biggest wholesaler of tobacco products was……….the US Government. I still remember my cigarette ration card that the Navy issued me so that I could have my 2 cartons per month, even though I never smoked. It wasn’t so long ago. 1983.

    By the way. Drop Dead Kevin.

  49. Kevin wrote

    Lamar wrote:
    > What if a person is suicidal but the chemical > relief from cigs and pot keeps him alive
    > until his life gets better?

    A very, very weak argument. Can you cite one instance–just one–where this has been the case?

    Kevin,

    from personal experience, I went through a miserable time in my life. I was prescribed anti-depressants, tranquilisers and sleeping tablets. During the time I was on this pharmaceutical cocktail I attempted suicide twice. I started smoking again, weaned myself of the drugs and have coped very well since thank you very much. Sorry I cant count myself as an actual death due to smoking cessation however there are documented evidence of many suicides associated with anti-depressants and people prescribed Zyban while quitting smoking.

    I sincerely hope you NEVER experience the depths of despair that I and many others have had to or continue to endure.

    GreatScot

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