Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Harvard Report and Tobacco-Free Kids' Propaganda Continue to Deceive: When Lower Levels of a Harmful Substance are Not Safer

An editorial in Monday's Florida Times-Union, entitled "Tobacco: Lower Nicotine Levels," calls for a reduction in the nicotine levels in cigarettes. Interestingly, it does not call for an elimination of the nicotine - it merely calls for a reduction.

According to the editorial: "Critics argue that people will smoke more cigarettes, to feed their addiction, if nicotine levels are lowered. That's possible, particularly at first, but it seems less likely over the long run. Young people, who start smoking after the advent of weaker cigarettes, might have less of a habit to feed. A little of something bad is preferable to a lot of it."

The Rest of the Story

Let's stipulate, for the sake of argument, that the editorial is correct and that compensation is a short-lived phenomenon and that over the "long run," decreases in nicotine levels will actually result in decreased nicotine exposure and a reduction in the addictiveness or harm of cigarettes.

If that is correct, then Judge Kessler has made a terrible decision in finding the tobacco companies guilty of fraud in falsely implying that low-nicotine cigarettes confer a health benefit. And the tobacco control movement has been, and continues to be, gravely mistaken in criticizing cigarette companies for marketing low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes and for implying a health benefit.

What this editorial is arguing is that there is, in fact, a health benefit to low-nicotine cigarettes and that cigarette companies are correct in implying such. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with marketing low-nicotine cigarettes such as "lights" and "ultra-lights" and tobacco control groups and the D.C. District Court have greatly erred.

The truth is that despite drastic declines in the nicotine levels of cigarettes over the past 30-40 years, there is absolutely no evidence of any health benefit over the "long run." And there is not a single health group which is claiming that these drastic reductions in nicotine levels has translated into any health benefit. In contrast, there is agreement that the reduction in nicotine levels has been harmful to health because it has misled people into believing that cigarettes are safer when they are not.

The argument that young people will be less likely to smoke if nicotine levels are lower is equally flawed. No one in the health community has argued that the drastic reductions in nicotine levels over the past four decades has been a good thing because it has made kids less likely to start smoking. If anything, lower nicotine levels make kids more likely to smoke because they are less likely to be turned off by the harshness of cigarettes upon initial experimentation.

If anything, a very high nicotine cigarette would confer health benefits and potentially make cigarettes less palatable to kids. High nicotine levels would allow smokers to get the same nicotine dose with less tar, thereby reducing carcinogenic and chronic lung effects. High nicotine levels would also make cigarettes much less palatable for youths and could therefore decrease, rather than increase youth smoking initiation.

Not only is the editorial wrong, but it is presenting the exact opposite of what I believe represents an accurate scientific and policy perspective on nicotine regulation. However, I want to make it clear that I do not blame the newspaper for this. I think the blame lies with the propaganda that has been put out by the Harvard report and groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which has inappropriately used the Harvard report to support the proposed FDA tobacco legislation.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but this is one situation when a little of something bad is not necessarily preferable to a lot of it.

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