More Nicotine Madness

Media critic Jack Shaeffer weighs in on the coverage of this week’s Harvard nicotine level study. He shares the tobacco companies side of the story and says, “so what” about higher nicotine levels:

A substantial body of scientific research shows that smokers excel at milking cigarettes for the nicotine dose they desire, irrespective of how many milligrams of nicotine the actual cigarette they end up smoking contains. The well-known behavior is called “compensatory smoking.” University of Waterloo professor David Hammond wrote in a sidebar to my piece last summer, “humans adjust the intensity of their smoking in response to the cigarette design and emission level. Therefore, ‘lower nicotine’ yield cigarettes are smoked systematically more intensely.”

Whenever the press writes about nicotine yields, it invariably quotes some public-health advocate warning that even these incremental increases in nicotine automatically make cigarettes more addictive. But if that were true, wouldn’t the press or somebody have saluted the tobacco industry for reducing the addictive potential of cigarettes whenever nicotine levels dropped? Indeed, between 1972 and 1983, the average measured nicotine (sales weighted) dropped from 1.39 milligrams per cigarette to 0.88 milligrams per cigarette. From 1989 to 1996, it dropped from 0.96 milligrams per cigarette to 0.88 milligrams per cigarette. (See this Federal Trade Commission PDF.) I don’t recall hearing any cheering.

The nicotine-yield obsession blinds the press and some in the public-health establishment to the fact that, as Hammond wrote in the Slate sidebar last summer, there’s enough nicotine in any commercially available cigarette “to promote and sustain addiction.” All cigarettes are dangerous, no matter what their octane rating.