One of the key claims of proponents of the FDA tobacco legislation is that by mandating the lowering of nicotine to very low levels, cigarettes will no longer be addictive. Thus, millions of smokers will quit, millions less youths will start smoking, and "countless" lives will be saved.
As with other claims made by the anti-smoking groups in favor of this legislation, I have argued that this one is scientifically unfounded. There currently does not exist evidence that lowering the level of nicotine, even severely, would result in a product that is no longer addictive. In contrast, I have argued, lowering nicotine levels might well increase tobacco-related morbidity and mortality by causing smokers to inhale more deeply and to increase their cigarette consumption in order to maintain their current nicotine dosage.
Importantly, the deal struck by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Philip Morris has a provision that precludes the FDA from eliminating the nicotine. It can lower the levels, but it cannot eliminate the nicotine entirely. New evidence published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology sheds light on why Philip Morris may have insisted on this loophole in the legislation.
The new study found that even de-nicotinized cigarettes, which contain only a trace amount of nicotine, deliver a substantial dose of nicotine to the brain and that this level of nicotine is sufficient to occupy a substantial proportion of nicotine receptors in the brain (see: Brody AL, et al. Brain nicotinic acetylcholine receptor occupancy: effect of smoking a denicotinized cigarette.
International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. doi: 10.1017/S146114570800922X).
According to the article, the smoking of a de-nicotinized cigarette resulted in 26% of the nicotine receptors in the brain being occupied, compared to 79% with a low-nicotine cigarette and 88% with a regular cigarette.
According to the authors: "The two take-home messages are that very little nicotine is needed to occupy a substantial portion of brain nicotine receptors and cigarettes with less nicotine than regular cigarettes, such as 'light' cigarettes, still occupy most brain nicotine receptors. Thus, low-nicotine cigarettes function almost the same as regular cigarettes in terms of brain nicotine-receptor occupancy. It also showed us that de-nicotinized cigarettes still deliver a considerable amount of nicotine to the brain. Researchers, clinicians and smokers themselves should consider that fact when trying to quit."
The occupancy of 26% of nicotine receptors in the brain, according to the authors, would still be substantial.
The Rest of the Story
Most likely, Philip Morris was aware of this fact and brilliantly negotiated a clause ensuring that very low levels of nicotine would always remain in cigarettes, thus ensuring that cigarettes would always have substantial nicotine activity in the brain, despite the ruse (sure to be created by anti-smoking groups) that the addiction problem has been taken care of.
The prospect of very low nicotine cigarettes was apparently too much for the anti-smoking groups to pass up and as they usually do, they ignored the lack of scientific support for their contention and instead were bought off by the opportunity for what would turn out to be a pyrrhic, solely political victory.
In fact, this research provides evidence that the FDA legislation would forever institutionalize nicotine addiction into society, backed by government acceptance and approval. Philip Morris could not dream of a more favorable outcome.
As I discussed in my columns on the anti-smoking movement's new obsession with getting rid of the color pink on cigarette packs (but giving official government approval to what is in the box while granting virtual immunity to the producers of the deadly product), the movement is now determined to achieve a solely political victory -- one which allows them to boast about their accomplishment but without actually putting a dent in cigarette use.
Indeed, it will be a pyrrhic victory. It will inflict severe (in fact, irreparable) damage on the tobacco control movement and on the public's health. It will do very little to address the problem of addiction or of the hazards of cigarette smoking, yet it will increase cigarette consumption by giving the product a government stamp of approval, institutionalize the fraud and deception of the American consumer, and grant virtual immunity to the tobacco industry.
While the anti-smoking groups could give the legislation some small chance of achieving a more favorable outcome by demanding that the Philip Morris nicotine protection clause be removed from the bill, they have adamantly refused to do so. Instead, they are protecting the right of Big Tobacco to continue to addict millions of our children and to do so with the approval and blessing of the federal government.