The Dark Horse: Tobacco

After posting several recent articles about the roundly debunked "gateway drug theory", we at Twenty-One Debunked felt we should also discuss in greater depth 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 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 ever 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.  This appears to be particularly true for people who begin smoking or vaping before age 15 or so.

In contrast, the "reverse gateway" theory, namely that cannabis use causes later tobacco/nicotine use or dependence, does not appear to stand up to scrutiny.

As for the specious claim that nicotine is a cognitive enhancer, making its users smarter, well, it turns out that the opposite is most likely true, at least in the long run.  The exact reason for this is not clear, but given that nicotine is a known neurotoxin, it's not really much of a shock that it could be a bit detrimental to brainpower, right?

Additionally, tobacco/nicotine 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 nonetheless 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, PCBs, DDT, incandescent light bulbs, certain kinds of weapons, 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.  And as of 2018, they are currently at least considering doing so.  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 vape sales to achieve at least 95% retailer compliance
  • Implement tough tobacco retail licensing (TRL) laws with frequent inspections and quotas on outlet density.
  • Continue to allow widespread availability of reduced-harm tobacco and nicotine products (i.e. snus, vape products, etc.) so that smokers can easily switch to less dangerous alternatives (but cap the nicotine content of vape products down to European and Israeli levels.)
  • 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, as well as by dying younger.  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 $2.50/pack reduce their tax to $2.50/pack or lower, and the several states with taxes of less than $1.50/pack raise it to $1.50-$2.50/pack.  NYC should cut its tax in half, as should Chicago as well.  At the federal level, we would have much preferred another (modest) tax hike rather than raising the smoking age any higher than 18, and given a choice between the two, we at Twenty-One Debunked will always take the tax hike every time.  After all, cigarette tax hikes are one of the most effective ways to reduce smoking for all ages, especially for young people, and even with contraband tobacco smuggling, the net effect is less smoking and more revenue on balance.  No wonder Big Tobacco hates tobacco taxes so much!

Furthermore, we ought to be careful not to tax vaping excessively, lest we inadvertently steer vapers back to smokingVape taxes should be about 5-10 cents/mL of e-liquid, only apply to nicotine-containing e-liquid, and ideally be proportional to nicotine content (i.e. $1.00-$2.00 per 40 mg nicotine) so as to disincentivize the super-concentrated (and thus more addictive) nicotine vapes like JUUL.  True, nicotine vaping contains, well, nicotine, which is hardly benign.  And of course there are also concerns about other constituents of vape juice, and even potential heavy metal exposure from the heating coils of some devices as well (though, like anything, the dose makes the poison).  But it is still the lesser evil compared to smoking combustible cigarettes, and the taxes should reflect that.  (Of course, it can be raised quite high as long as the cigarette and other tobacco taxes are raised even higher still.)

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


For a variety of reasons, Americans keep forgetting to remember to forget that there was a time when cigarettes were banned in 15 states, and many states did in fact set the age limit at 21 at some point, for decades in some cases.  And yet, neither of these measures were able to prevent the tobacco epidemic, and the states that took such measures ultimately succumbed to it just like the states that did not do so.  In other words, it was basically a wash overall, regardless of what the smoking age was.
  • 1883-1920:  Due to growing concerns about smoking, particularly among young people, the first age limits on the sale of tobacco were passed by states.  Most were 16-18, though a few were lower and some were as high as 21.
  • 1890-1921:  Starting with Tennessee, 15 states had banned cigarettes by 1921, some of which banned all tobacco products.  
  • 1920s-1930s:  More and more states set the age limit for tobacco at 21.  Eventually half of all states did at one point or another, and fully one third of states was the peak that had a 21 smoking age at any given time.
  • 1927:  All cigarette bans were repealed by then, under pressure from Big Tobacco and of course the lure of tax revenues.  (Some local-level bans remained into the 1930s.)
  • 1950-1980:  The states that set the age limit at 21 all lowered their age limits down to the 15-18 range, mostly done after 1950.  By 1963, only five states were still 21, and those were lowered to 18 or less by the end of the 1970s, and four states even got rid of age limits entirely.
  • 1980-1992:  Some states begin raising age limits again, but no higher than 18 or 19.
  • 1992-1993:  The federal Synar Amendment passes, requiring all states to raise their age limits for sale of tobacco products to at least 18.  By 1993, all states and territories were at least 18, and a very few states and localities were 19.
  • 2005:  Needham, MA raises their age limit to 21, the first place in the USA to do so since 1963, and the only one until 2013.  Also, New Jersey raises their age limit to 19, as do Nassau and Suffolk County in New York.
  • 2009:  The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act sets a non-preemptive federal age limit of 18 for the sale of tobacco products.
  • 2013-2015:  More localities raise the age limit to 21, most notably NYC in 2014, though no states did until 2016. 
  • 2016-2019:  Starting with Hawaii and California in 2016, more and more states (19 total as of December 2019) raised the age limit to 21, along with more and more localities as well.  Tobacco 21 laws really explode from 2018 onwards.
  • 2019-2020:  As of December 20, 2019, Congress raised the federal tobacco and vape product sale age from 18 to 21, which will take full effect by September 2020.
It is true that the tobacco industry historically pressure states to lower their age limits and steadily fought to keep them from going back to 21.  But they also managed to cynically use existing age limits (whatever they were) as leverage in their marketing strategy to make tobacco seem more "adult" (read: for kids) and trigger the "forbidden fruit" effect.   And of course they did not support enforcement against vendors, but rather cynically supported purchase, use, and possession (PUP) laws to shift the onus onto young buyers rather than the sellers.  So this thing has levels and layers.

And it is far from obvious that an age limit of 21 actually reduces youth smoking any more so than an age limit of 18, since the states that had age limits of 21 for decades failed to prevent such smoking, and both then and now, the vast majority of adult smokers began before 18, often well before.  Smoking among high school students peaked in 1976, dropped until 1992, rose again until 1997, and plummeted since then, already reaching a record low before the recent push to raise smoking ages to 21.  And NYC did see a further decrease after raising the age limit to 21 in 2014, but no faster than the rest of the country did.  Ditto for Hawaii in 2015-2017.  And while California saw a faster than average decrease in teen smoking from 2015-2017, they also raised their cigarette tax by $2.00 per pack in 2017, and saw a slower decrease than Pennsylvania who raised their tax by $1.00 per pack in 2016 to a level just below California's but kept their age limit at 18.

Note also that, apart from a brief, half-hearted, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt in the late 1970s to try to stop Michigan from raising their drinking age to 21 (and then briefly trying in vain to lower it back to 18 or 19), the alcohol industry at all levels has been surprisingly quiet and nonchalant about the drinking age, especially since that fateful and ominous year of 1984.   Once they saw that it was essentially a "big nothing" in terms of their profitability while still being good for PR nonetheless, they have since cynically supported the 21 drinking age while actively fighting and lobbying against real threats to their power and profits, namely tax hikes, advertising restrictions, and tougher DUI laws.   That should really say something indeed!

And come to think of it, as of 2018 Big Tobacco, especially Altria Group (formerly known as Philip Morris) who also owns JUUL openly supports Tobacco 21 laws, even at the federal level.  Such quislings indeed.

* NOTE:  The fairly ambiguous term "smoking age" can refer to the minimum legal age limit for tobacco in either 1) sale-to-underage (STU) laws and/or 2) purchase-use-possession (PUP) laws.  The former puts the onus on the seller, while the latter puts the onus on the buyer/user.  In this article, we use the term interchangeably to refer to whichever age limit is higher in a given jurisdiction.

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