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.


  1. I agree with you on everything here. A smoking age or tobacco purchasing age of 21 is oppression, plain and simple. The smoking age should be 18 everywhere in the United States. In addition to lowering the nicotine content level to 0.1%, tobacco companies should be banned from putting additives into cigarettes. Cigarette companies should also be banned from putting in toxic pesticide onto tobacco plants. New York City's regulations on tobacco are oppressive and they should not be followed by other areas of the country. Instead, the policy ideas here in this article should be basis for tobacco laws.

  2. Uh oh. Looks like San Francisco has jumped on the 21 smoking age bandwagon.