Public Health

What About 'Corrective Statements' for the Government?


Last week U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler let the public see the Justice Department's proposed "corrective statements" in its racketeering lawsuit against the leading tobacco companies. The statements (PDF), which would appear in attachments to cigarette packages, in newspaper and magazine ads, and on point-of-sale signs, deal with four topics: the health hazards of smoking, the health hazards of exposure to secondhand smoke, the addictiveness of nicotine, and the purported health advantages of "light" cigarettes. But some of the corrections are incorrect, or at least highly debatable.

According to the DOJ, for example, "the scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke." It would be accurate, though not very meaningful, to say that no safe level of exposure has been established. The same thing could be said of any toxin or carcinogen that in tiny, barely measurable amounts might cause damage so rare or imperceptible that it does not show up in epidemiological studies. But the same limitations that make it impossible to say with complete certainty that there is a safe level of exposure also make it impossible to conclude that there is not a safe level. The implication that the slightest whiff of tobacco smoke might prove fatal is misleading in the sense that no such risk has ever been demonstrated.

Two of the proposed statements claim that "when you smoke, the nicotine actually changes the brain," which is "why quitting is so hard." That assertion reflects a reductionist, drug-centered view of addiction that is inconsisent with much of what we know about smoking (that it's not just about the nicotine, for example, or that different people in different circumstances respond to the drug very differently). Given the complexity of the phenomenon, one might as well say that when you fall in love, the experience changes the brain, which is why breaking up is so hard.

The Justice Department's insistence that nicotine pharmacologically compels people to continue using it is ironic because the DOJ also faults the tobacco companies for clinging to the old-fashioned distinction between "habituating" drugs (such as nicotine and cocaine) and "addictive" drugs (such as heroin) long after the government had adopted a broader definition of "substance dependence." The current view focuses less on the inherent qualities of the substance and more on the pattern of behavior surrounding its use. But since the difficulty of giving up the tobacco habit has been a matter of common knowledge for centuries, it is unlikely that the industry's semantic games had much of an impact on consumer behavior.

Another target of the DOJ lawsuit, the misleading marketing of "light" cigarettes, comes closer to fraud. But as I've pointed out before, it's a fraud in which the government has been complicit all along. The tobacco companies began advertising tar and nicotine yields in 1971 under pressure from the Federal Trade Commission, which was threatening to mandate the use of these numbers. The FTC endorsed the method used to determine the yields, and it has only recently moved to reverse that policy in response to evidence that the numbers are unreliable. The basic problem, which the government has known about for decades, is that machines people do not smoke cigarettes the way that machines do. When people switch to "light" cigarettes, they tend to smoke more intensely (more puffs, deeper inhalation, etc.) to compensate for the lower nicotine yields. The upshot is that light cigarettes may not be any safer than "full-strength" cigarettes. In fact, since the tobacco companies generally reduced nicotine delivery along with tar, they  often increased smoke exposure for a given dose of nicotine.

A better approach would have been to raise nicotine delivery per puff, thereby reducing exposure to the toxins and carcinogens in cigarette smoke. (Electronic cigarettes, which deliver nicotine in a propylene glycol vapor, take this approach to its logical conclusion, completely eliminating combustion products.) Yet even while faulting the tobacco companies for failing to make cigarettes safer, which would have required changing the nicotine-to-tar ratio, the Justice Department criticizes them for secretly "manipulating" nicotine. "For decades," says one of the proposed corrective statements, "we denied that we controlled the level of nicotine delivered in cigarettes." But "the truth" is that "cigarettes are a finely-tuned nicotine delivery device designed to addict people….We control nicotine delivery to create and sustain smokers' addiction."

Although the tobacco companies have been maddeningly evasive on this point, anyone who gave the issue a moment's thought would have recognized that the way a cigarette is produced affects its nicotine delivery (which also depends on smokers' behavior). If the tobacco companies didn't control nicotine levels, how could they produce cigarettes with specified, machine-measured yields? In any event, what the DOJ portrays as a nefarious plot to hook customers—increasing or maintaining nicotine delivery while reducing exposure to combustion products—is also the only way to make tobacco products less dangerous.

Altria/Philip Morris, by the way, complains that the DOJ's corrective statements "go beyond factual and scientific information" by implying that cigarette makers lied to the public (saying, e.g., that they "falsely marketed" light cigarettes and that they "denied…the truth" about nicotine). "The Department of Justice proposal would compel the companies to admit wrongdoing under threat of contempt," says Murray Garnick, Altria's associate general counsel.  "Such a proposal is unprecedented in our legal system and would violate basic constitutional and statutory standards." Whatever the legal merits of that position, it's clear that the tobacco companies did lie to the public, though usually so transparently that the damage suffered by consumers was minimal to nonexistent. The tobacco myths promoted by the government are subtler and therefore more pernicious.

NEXT: The Crass Chris Example

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  1. Cigarettes, cold dead hands, all that stuff. You can spot my cigarette butts out in the smoking pen by the pink lip gloss on them today.

  2. is that machines do not smoke cigarettes the way that machines do.

    I doubt people smoke cigarettes the way machines do, either.


      1. Yeah, I thought it was really good too!


    2. My God is she overrated! Her video and song feel formulaic and her weirdness shtick is tiring.

      1. That video is formulaic? Are all the pop stars doing Cronenbergesque music videos now?

  3. are the states spending the MSA money on smoker’s smoking-related health care? I’d like to know the about that.

    1. Not according to what I’ve heard. Like, for instance, that it’s been largely spent on balancing state budgets instead. I’d like to know the definitive answer to this question as well. It’s time for (like you said) some truth.

  4. In fact, since the tobacco companies generally reduced nicotine delivery along with tar, they often increased smoke exposure for a given dose of nicotine.

    So, do I understand this to mean that a well-intentioned Nanny State program actually made things worse?

    are the states spending the MSA money on smoker’s smoking-related health care?

    The states are collecting money from the settlement, and are spending money on smoking-related health care whenever beneficiaries of state programs who have smoking-related problems go in for care.

    Whether these numbers line up is a deep mystery. Whether the dollars spent are the very same dollars collected is more of an epistemological issue than a financial one.

    1. The states are collecting money from the settlement, and are spending money on smoking-related health care random stuff


      1. Exactly.

  5. Given the complexity of the phenomenon, one might as well say that when you fall in love, the experience changes the brain, which is why breaking up is so hard.

    Complexity is not required — every damn experience you have ‘changes the brain’ including reading this sentence. That’s just how memory works (physical changes in connections between neurons).

  6. damn I want a smoke!

  7. Two of the proposed statements claim that “when you smoke, the nicotine actually changes the brain,” which is “why quitting is so hard.” That assertion reflects a reductionist, drug-centered view

    That’s because it’s the War on Drugs all the way down.

  8. I am so glad I quit smoking…moreso than that I feel so much better, it’s not having to worry about the next hit that was coming…higher taxes, even stupider warnings, the tsk tsk of my colleagues, the next ultra-fucking stupid “study” (third-hand smoke….REALLY?).

    Fuck the nanny state – smoke ’em if you got ’em. Me, I’ll just enjoy a nice, free, second-hand hit now 🙂

    1. Third-hand? We’re already concerned about fourth-hand, and considering moving it up to fifth.

  9. Let’s come up with some government warning labels:

    WARNING: The stated justification for you government is to defend your life, liberty, and property, but historians have shown that government starts by taking your property, frequently reduces your liberty, and may require you to forfeit your life and your liberty to defend it.

    WARNING: The Constitution limits what the government may do, but the government defines what the Constitution means.

  10. It’s so sad for me to have seen things go over the decades from a situation in which smoking was discovered (well, slowly increasingly confirmed, really) to have been dangerous — and where the problem was understood in a kind of we’re-all-in-this-together way, i.e. accepted as that people like nicotine and like to smoke to get it, and would do so regardless of how the tobacco business was arranged or came about, so let’s figure out how to mitigate this situation — into one in which the particular people who happened to be mfg. cigarets (but, strangely, not those growing the tobacco or selling the smokes in the corner candy store) were blamed for the situation, along with the smokers themselves incongruously being both victims and perpetrators. And it’s like everyone has to deny this history for it to make sense.

    Oh, hell, it looked during the same sensible portion of this period of time as if narcotics and marijuana would soon albeit gradually become legal for enjoyment too. Something happened. I don’t know what it was, and I’m not looking for nor will I accept a facile answer. Even booze become somewhat more evil over this time period, even as evidence accumulated of its health benefits.

  11. Didn’t Mad magazine (or was it National Lampoon) run with this idea years ago? As I recall, it was pretty funny. While not focusing exclusively on warnings about government, there were enough proposed warning labels that referred to government to earn thumbs-up from most libertarians of my acquaintance. And the rest were amusing in their own right.

  12. It’s called a molecule. One single molecule of cyanide would cause exactly 0 deaths. Of course they will complain that one single molecule is irrelevant, but if you don’t fight them on their own semantic grounds there is nothing to say.

  13. Excellent column Jacob! You hit the nail squarely on the head. I’d like to expand on three points in this and two following posts, but you covered the basics well and completely!

    1) Re “no safe level”: you’ve accurately described the problem with the statement but I’d like to expand a bit to show its true absurdity by looking at two other “threats” out there endangering innocent people’s lives: sunshine and alcohol.

    UV radiation and Ethyl Alcohol consumption have both been fully recognized as Class A Carcinogens, and as such there is, according to antismoking doctrine, “no safe level of exposure” since no such levels have ever been, or are likely to be, established within the current conceptual medical/scientific framework. People who, out of health concerns, cross the street to avoid walking by a group of smokers, are no more sane than people who are afraid to stick their hand out the door in the morning to pick up the morning paper while that Giant Melanoma In The Sky is above the horizon. The same would hold true for people who avoid eating in restaurants that serve alcohol: as pointed out in my argument in the BMJ’s Rapid Responses to a study by Konrad Jamrozik — See: “Secondary Smoke, Alcohol, and Deaths” at:…..acf89545d8

    — highly volatile ethyl alcohol fumes could be considered to be in the same boat as wisps of secondary smoke. Both represent involuntary exposures to absurdly low levels of carcinogens by innocents who “deserve the right to clean air.”

    In both the cases for sunshine and alcohol however, the victims should be referred for psychiatric counseling. Except in the cases of the most extreme exposures such simple remedies as sunscreen and ventilation remove all rational levels of “threat.” However, as we well know, in the case of secondary smoke such people today are more likely to be patted on the back for displaying common sense and offered a million dollar check to carry out supportive research. This distortion of reality by playing on fear (see point #3 below) has been achieved through an immense amount of money poured into the media through what would have been purely seen as fanatical fringe group organizations in absence of that money. Of course it’s been supported as well by more mainstream groups and figures for various reasons that I discussed in Brains and elsewhere, but the core of the fear has been planted and tended by the radicals and has resulted in far more overall harm than I believe it has prevented. (Continued…)

  14. 2) Re “light cigarettes” : Jacob, I fully agree with you in finding it absolutely unbelievable how quickly it has been forgotten that the entire thrust bringing such cigarettes into existence was government insistence that FTC-type numbers derived from specialized machine testing be treated seriously and publicized. “Light” cigarettes certainly weren’t created out of demands by the smokers who used to disparage “True” brand cigarettes in the 70s by joking that the only decent puff was the last one — the most concentrated one — that you would take. And they were consciously promoted by some governments (The British spring to mind if my memory is accurate.) who either promoted or proposed to promote such cigarettes by a graduated means of taxation making the “light” cigarettes cheaper so as to encourage smokers to switch to them.

    Are we to believe that the resources of the tobacco companies in understanding the shortfalls and potential harms of such cigarettes were so much greater than those of the world’s governments that they, and only they, knew of those shortfalls and harms? Or is it instead possible that the governments knew of such problems but also realized that it was likely that smokers of “light” cigarettes would be more likely to buy and smoke more of them — thereby adding billions to tax coffers without politically unpalatable tax increases? My own guess in the matter is that BOTH the tobacco companies and the governments knew full well what they were doing and simply had an unspoken complicity in this: after all, Big Tobacco ALSO made more money with more sales.

    And meanwhile of course the governments and companies could mollify their antismoking fanatic fringe by continuing the largely ineffective antismoking programs of the late ’70s through the mid ’90s. Should the tobacco companies be found guilty in this “lights” scam? Maybe … but if so, then the governments should be found guilty as well. (Continued…)

  15. Finally:

    3) Re the “nicotine actually changes the brain” antismoking statement. It’s obviously simply designed to be scary (Antismoking propaganda often plays consciously and deliberately upon primal psychology: fear of death, love of children, desires for social belonging/acceptance etc) but it wouldn’t be nearly as scary if put in proper context. As you point out, love changes the brain too, but a closer analogy would be chocolate. Both the chemicals directly in chocolate as well as the body’s reaction to those chemicals surely produce changes in brain chemistry and such things as endorphin levels.

    Chocolate is a drug, and “chocolate bars” and “chocolate bits” (I am an expert on both) are “drug delivery devices” which serve as enabling tools for the unfortunate addicts. As you know, drug companies have been working since the 1990s to perfect drugs that would “vaccinate” children from enjoying various life stimuli that people throughout history have found to be enjoyable. NicVaX, developed by Nabi Biopharmaceuticals in Maryland

    is quite close to the marketing stage and will likely serve as the “gateway drug” toward inoculating children against enjoying cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, and … yes, conceivably … even chocolate as the “War On Obesity” gains traction. Sure, it sounds funny right now, but 30 years ago the idea that we’d accept such basic brain chemistry alteration of our babies simply to ensure that they never took up smoking would have been laughable as well.

    The danger here, aside from obvious concerns about social engineering and production of “robotic” human beings, is that there may well be all sorts of extremely serious long term harmful side effects from such interference with the basics of the human experiences of drive and enjoyment. We could very well produce a generation of smoke-haters (either by vaccine or deliberate infantile injury to such nicotine-loving portions of the brain as the insula) that would lose its desire for life after age 60 — or perhaps even after age 40. It could even be possible that we’d see teen suicides increase gradually over ten or twenty or more years while the cause would be attributed to new societal pressures and such things while the “safety” vaccines/interventions would actually be the cause. Don’t think it would pass unnoticed? Check the teen suicide levels recently and see what you think.

    And beyond the vaccines/operations, what will happen when, after accepting the desirability of such intervention to produce the perfect human being, we proceed down the eugenic road toward such things as breaking the p-53 gene that leads smokers to enjoy smoking? Research indicates that the gene may be disproportionately “broken” in higher proportions of nonsmokers (heh… and probably in a good number of brain-damaged Antismokers) and it’s quite possible we could produce nonsmoking children by a simple genetic alteration which would then be passed down to their own children. When it turns out, three generations down the line, that it also produces sociopathic suicidal homicidal maniacs it’ll be a bit late to put the genie back in the bottle.

    The antismoking fanatics have been given far too much money, far too much power, and far too much leeway in interfering with science and with our communications media. Something needs to be done, and soon, to bring things back into balance.

    Michael J. McFadden,
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

  16. Reading the exact words the DOJ is demanding of Big T, I’m reminded of the Soviet Show Trials and the forced recantations.

    If this kind of forced speech is constitutional, there’s no constitution. Pack it up and find a nice desert island.

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