Sunday, February 28, 2016

Tobacco, The Ulitmate Dark Horse of Drugs

Almost immediately after posting a recent article about the roundly debunked "gateway drug theory", we at Twenty-One Debunked felt we should post another separate article about the particular case of tobacco, especially in the form of commercial cigarettes. While our organization does not generally view tobacco as a particularly high-priority issue, perhaps it is something we should be revisiting given both recent evidence as well as recent efforts to raise the smoking age to 21.

While the primary dangers of smoking tobacco (i.e. cancer, heart disease, stroke, emphysema, birth defects, etc.) have been well-known for decades, what has been much less appreciated is the neurotoxic properties of cigarettes.  The thing is, nicotine is a known neurotoxin, and it is likely that at least some of the thousands of other chemicals in cigarette smoke are also toxic to the brain as well.  One reported effect of nicotine is that it can "prime" the brain's reward system for addiction in general, including to other substances.  This seems to be particularly true for the early adolescent brain.  While these findings are based primarily on rodent studies, human studies seem to dovetail with this idea far more for tobacco than for cannabis or even alcohol.  Thus, the psychopharmacological aspect of the gateway hypothesis seems to hold true indeed for tobacco, and if there were such a thing as an actual gateway drug (which is a very big "if", if you ask us), tobacco would have to be it, hands down.

Additionally, tobacco is also emerging as a potential "dark horse" in the etiology of psychosis and schizophrenia as well.  This has been informally hypothesized for many years now while being overlooked by most researchers, and is only very recently beginning to be taken seriously by mainstream science.  Perhaps cannabis (which is often mixed with tobacco in many countries, and whose use is often predicted by prior and concurrent tobacco use in general) has been taking a major bum rap in that regard as well?  All while Big Tobacco has subtly and sedulously promoted tobacco smoking as "self-medication" for decades, of course.

That said, Twenty-One Debunked strongly opposes any attempts to raise the smoking age any higher than 18.  Instead, we (along with the TSAP) believe that we should deal with cigarettes the way we would deal with any other defective product such as the historical examples of the Ford Pinto, lawn darts (Jarts), leaded gasoline and paint, DDT, incandescent light bulbs, and old-style refrigerators.  Either 1) require the defects to be sufficiently fixed, or 2) failing that, remove such products from the market.  And yes, commercial cigarettes as they exist today are indeed defective by design in that they addict, enslave, and kill far more people than they have to.  Worldwide, they kill about 6 million people per year, hence the name of Robert N. Proctor's bombshell of a book, Golden Holocaust.

Since 2013, the endgame strategy that the TSAP (and Twenty-One Debunked) currently supports has been to let tobacco phase itself out by gradually reducing the nicotine content of cigarettes to a (relatively) non-addictive level.  Since 2009, the FDA now has the authority to set a legal limit on the nicotine content of tobacco products, as long as the limit is not zero.  Much research indicates that there is a threshold level of nicotine required to create and sustain addiction, and if all cigarettes were to fall below this threshold, smoking rates would plummet precipitously.  In fact, one tobacco executive was quoted as saying, "‘If our product was not addictive we would not sell a cigarette next week."  This idea was originally proposed by Henningfield and Benowitz in 1994, and has been endorsed by the American Medical Association and several other experts including Proctor himself.  Malcolm Gladwell also discussed it in his aptly-titled 2000 book The Tipping Point.   Thus, the TSAP recommends reducing the maximum nicotine content (not delivery) of cigarettes from the current level of 1-2% to less than 0.1% within 5 years, and doing the same for quasi-cigarettes (i.e. little cigars) and perhaps roll-your-own tobacco (but no other products).  That alone would reduce smoking prevalence by as much as 80% within a fairly short timeframe, with further reductions possible in the more distant future.  Alternatively (or in addition), the FDA could require the pH of such products to be raised to 8 or higher to discourage deep inhalation, as is naturally the case for most typical cigars and pipe tobacco currently.

The TSAP and Twenty-One Debunked also recommend that the following measures be taken as well:

  • Ban the use of additives in cigarettes, especially those that are harmful or increase the addictiveness of tobacco.
  • Ban the use of any radioactive fertilizers or harmful pesticides for growing tobacco.
  • Phase-out the practice of flue-curing tobacco, which is a major resource hog and bad for the environment.
  • Improve the quality control standards for tobacco products (and electronic cigarettes) to be at least as high as for food.
  • End all government subsidies for tobacco farming and production.
  • Divest completely from Big Tobacco at all levels of government.
  • Vigorously enforce the current age limit of 18 for tobacco and e-cigarette sales to achieve 100% retailer compliance. 
  • Continue to allow widespread availability of reduced-harm tobacco and nicotine products (i.e. snus, e-cigarettes, etc.) so that smokers can easily switch to less dangerous alternatives.
  • Improve education and smoking cessation programs, funded by tobacco tax revenues.
  • Give out free nicotine patches, gum, etc. to any smokers who want to quit.  NYC already does this. 
At the same time, the TSAP most certainly does NOT support outdoor smoking bans or any other policy that treats smokers like criminals or second-class citizens.  Smokers are NOT the villains here, as that dubious honor belongs to the merchants of death known as tobacco companies.  In fact, we have repeatedly pointed out that, far from being a drain on society, smokers actually save society money in the long run since they more than pay their way as far as taxes go.  Cigarette taxes, especially in NYC where they are extremely high, have basically become a "reverse Robin Hood" way to rob from the poor and give to the rich, since smoking has increasingly become a poor man's vice.  And the wide disparity in cigarette taxes across states has led to a serious black market for untaxed/low-tax/counterfeit/stolen cigarettes, with the main beneficiaries being organized crime syndicates and even terrorists.  Thus, we recommend that the handful of states with cigarette taxes higher than $2.00/pack reduce their tax to $2.00/pack or lower, and the states with taxes of less than $1.00/pack raise it to $1.00-$2.00/pack.  NYC should cut its tax in half.  At the federal level, we recommend no further tax hikes, but a national price floor of $5.00/pack including tax to discourage smuggling.

The tobacco industry has basically dug its own grave.  Time to push them in there, yesterday.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

DARE Quietly Removes Cannabis From List of Gateway Drugs

Yes, you read that headline correctly.  The well-known drug and alcohol prevention program for kids, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), has quietly removed cannabis from its list of "gateway" drugs.  And they apparently have also stopped lying to kids about the purported dangers of cannabis in general as well.  That is probably because the recent evidence that debunked their previous propaganda has been overwhelming.  And that is a sign that "reefer sanity" is slowly starting to return to America.

DARE's current list of "gateway" drugs can be found on this page of their website.  Note that only two substances remain on that list:  1) tobacco, and 2) alcohol, in that order.  And even the part about alcohol, with warnings against the dangers of "underage" drinking, interestingly enough makes no specific mention of what the legal drinking age is or should be, as the actual words "twenty-one" and "21" are literally nowhere to be found in the text.  It does, however, note that 90% of young people will experiment with alcohol by age 18, and that only a small number abstain completely while an even smaller number become addicted and need help.  And the page encourages parents to, among other things, be good role models as far as alcohol and tobacco are concerned (which is important as that addresses the real pink elephant in the room).  Overall, DARE has really come a long way it seems, and we hope their recent progress continues.

We at Twenty-One Debunked should note, however, that we believe that the whole "gateway theory" (which should really be called the "gateway hypothesis") has been grossly overstated at best, even as far as alcohol and tobacco are concerned.  A few years ago, we wrote an in-depth article about this phenomenon, which the best evidence strongly suggests is really nothing more than a socially-constructed narrative.  Constructed by prohibition laws, disingenuous propaganda, and ageism/adultism, that is.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Why 18?

We at Twenty-One Debunked realize that, over the past several years, we have spent so much time and energy trying to convince people why the drinking age should NOT be 21, that we left ourselves wide open for criticism from the other end of the spectrum.  To wit, some have asked, either honestly or disingenuously, why 18?  Why not 16, or 13, or abolish it altogether?  Until recently, we have been ignoring such questions, but we now feel that such questions must be fielded properly after having debated exactly those questions in youth-rights forums and elsewhere.  If we keep ignoring such questions, we could perhaps alienate many in the youth-rights movement, while also ironically and inadvertently giving ammunition to the pro-21 side.

For a good set of arguments as to why the drinking age should be lowered from 21 to 18, and not be any higher than 18, please take a look at our intro page, as this post will only deal with the other side of the question (i.e. why not less than 18?) for the most part.  We have already established that the drinking age should never be any higher than the age of majority in a free society.  So what are our arguments for not pushing for lowering it any further than 18, exactly?

First and foremost, there is the issue of pragmatism, as there is truly a snowball's chance in hell of getting the drinking age lowered any further than 18 (which is hard enough as it is).  America is truly not ready for such a massive change, as one poll found that no more than 5% of American adults support lowering it to 16 (the same poll found 30% favored 18), and the last time any state had a drinking age below 18 was in the 1930s (Ohio was briefly 16 and Colorado had no age limit for a few years).  So aiming for a drinking age of less than 18 is basically a political non-starter, and will remain so until many, many years after lowering it to 18 (which itself is no small feat).  And pursuing such a goal, at least doing so openly, would alienate a huge chunk of potential supporters.

Secondly, even if it was politically feasible to lower the drinking age to 16 or abolish it altogether, such a move could foreseeably have unintended consequences if done too quickly and too soon.  The best studies such as Miron and Tetelbaum (2009) find that the "parade of horrors" that would supposedly occur if 18-20 year olds were allowed to drink legally would most likely not occur--but unfortunately the same can't be said about abolishing the drinking age or lowering it further.  There is simply not enough evidence to reassure anyone that such problems won't happen--and if they did, even if only in the short-term, that would backfire and set our movement way, way back to where it was in the late 1980s.

Third, as the pro-21 crowd is so fond of pointing out ad nauseam, "America is not Europe".  Culturally and otherwise, that is certainly true.  America is indeed a largely Anglo-style drinking culture in many ways, as well as a car culture.  The closest comparison country would be Canada, with a drinking age of 18 or 19 depending on the province.  So that should be our model for the time being, not Europe.  And the next closest ones would be Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, all 18.  In fact, nowadays most of the world sets the drinking age, or at least the purchase age, at 18, not 16.   Note as well that several European countries are also 18, and even Spain and France have recently raised their drinking ages from 16 to 18 (despite the fact that such laws are largely unenforced).

Fourth, recent advances in neuroscience have uncovered some rather unpleasant-to-acknowledge truths about the effects of alcohol on teenage brains, as the pro-21 crowd just luuuurrrrves to point out.  Granted, such findings would apply primarily to truly heavy drinkers under 18 (and especially under 15) rather than 18-20 year olds, and not all of the evidence is 100% conclusive either, but to blithely ignore such findings regarding early to middle adolescents only gives ammunition to the pro-21 crowd.  And even if you believe that banning people under 18 from drinking for that reason is patronizing and paternalistic, you still need to see the pragmatism in acknowledging that it is not solely a civil rights issue but also a public health issue as well.

Finally, we at Twenty-One Debunked already support decriminalizing drinking for people under 18, with the penalty for the young drinkers (if any) being no more than a civil fine with no criminal record.  And we also support allowing parents to legally give alcohol to their own children (within reason) at home or other private property as well, which is already legal in many states now.  Those things, along with lowering the legal drinking age to 18, should take away most of the objections to not lowering the age further or abolishing it.  Purists in the youth-rights movement may very well disagree with us, of course, but please remember that compromise is, as the saying goes, "the art of the possible".

Keep in mind, Twenty-One Debunked is not categorically opposed to a drinking age lower than 18 at some point in the (albeit most likely very distant) future.  But we no longer consider such a goal to be worthwhile for the foreseeable future, and are thus sticking with 18 as our goal.

Let America be America again, and lower the drinking age to 18.  If you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to go to the bar.  'Nuff said.