Kicking Butt

William Saletan argues that it’s time to take a deep breath and consider whether we’re going too far in the war on tobacco:

Despite studies showing it’s far safer than cigarettes, most European countries allow smoking but prohibit snus. In the U.S., sponsors of legislation to regulate tobacco under the FDA are resisting amendments that would let companies tell consumers how much safer snus is. The president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids complains that snus will “increase the number of people who use tobacco,” letting “the big companies win no matter what tobacco products people use.” But the goal shouldn’t be to stamp out tobacco or make companies lose. The goal should be to save lives.

The bill’s opponents are no better. They’d rather stick with the idiotic current policy of letting the FDA regulate nicotine in gum and patches—its safest delivery vehicles—but not in cigarettes. They insist tobacco products can’t be made safer or less addictive. That’s just wrong. In addition to snus, one biotech company has already engineered tobacco plants that are almost nicotine-free.

A year ago, when a study showed an increase in cigarette nicotine levels, anti-smoking activists accused the tobacco industry of boosting its narcotic dosage to make people smoke more. But against the FDA bill, which would reduce nicotine levels, activists are making the opposite argument: that in order to get the same nicotine fix, people will be forced to smoke more cigarettes. Either way, they think manipulation is the problem. In the past, that was true. But today, manipulation is the solution.

Instead of indiscriminately vilifying tobacco, we should reengineer it. Bypass the combustion, purge the tar, dial down the nicotine—whatever serves public health. We could even use it to cure people. Two years ago, Henry Daniell, a biologist at the University of Central Florida, proved that an anthrax vaccine could be grown in genetically engineered tobacco. Tobacco was a logical vehicle, he said, because it was prolific and wouldn’t end up in the food supply.

I get the argument, and I suppose it could work with FDA regulation, but I also understand the reluctance to enlarge the tobacco market.