Thursday, 18 January 2007

Return of the tobacco companies: the nicotine wars

As the American public appears to be accepting the evils of smoking, the tobacco companies, still loaded with cash even after numerous regulations and civil lawsuits, have come back with a passion. Even though smoking remains a problem in the United States and throughout the world — especially in the developing world where tobacco giants are exploiting poor public health education (etc.) — a victory for the good against cigarettes has long been sought in the US, and many battles have been won. However, new data shows that the tobacco companies are increasing nicotine in their smokes, making the dangerous product even more addictive. Cigarettes, even the allegedly ‘pure’, ‘free’, ‘filtered’, and ‘light’ versions, contain chemicals and compounds like arsenic, ammonia, and tar (as well as many other hazardous carcinogens). Also, second hand smoke — the fumes that people around a smoker inhale when the person is smoking — is said to be more dangerous than first hand smoke (i.e. it may be more dangerous for third parties inhaling smoke than the person actually smoking). If that’s not a public health concern in the interest of society, what is? Third world countries are experiencing the problems with smoking to a large degree, and the WHO should probably — along with nations such as the United States — take action against the multinationals exploiting, harming, and corrupting societies poorer than the ones in North America and Europe. Raising the nicotine levels (NYT editorial) in a sly manner is nothing new, even in modern times.

Boston Globe via IHT:

Data supplied by tobacco companies strongly suggest that manufacturers in recent years deliberately raised nicotine levels in cigarettes to more effectively hook smokers, Harvard University researchers conclude in a study that was to be released Thursday.

The companies increasingly used tobacco richer in nicotine, and also made design changes to give smokers more puffs per cigarette, according to the analysis from the Harvard School of Public Health. The report expands on a landmark Massachusetts Department of Public Health study issued last August showing that the amount of nicotine that could be inhaled from cigarettes increased an average of 10 percent from 1998 through 2004.

The Harvard researchers, who corroborated the basic findings of the state study, wanted to determine why cigarettes were delivering more nicotine.

The state report did not address the causes.

"Industry says it's changed," said Greg Connolly, an author of the Harvard study and former director of the state health agency's Tobacco Control Program. "Yeah, they've changed — maybe for the worse."

For more information, see Wikipedia and a Google search, more resources here.

Here are excerpts of a great Foreign Policy article on smoking, Think Again: Tobacco by Kenneth E. Warner. The article requires a subscription so I have taken some of best parts from the PDF article.

For tobacco control advocates, the tobacco industry is public health enemy
number one: It sells a commodity that will kill 500 million of the 6 billion
people living today. For governments, tobacco is both a health threat and
a powerful economic force that annually generates hundreds of billions of
dollars in sales and billions more in tax revenues. That clash of interests
fuels a debate ensnarling everything from farm subsidies and export con-
trols to healthcare spending, taxation, law enforcement, and free speech.

“Antismoking Policies Are Hazardous to a
Nation’s Economic Health”
Not true, for all but a handful of countries. The
tobacco industry accounts for significant economic
activity in many countries through farming and prod-
uct manufacture, distribution, and sales. According
to a recent World Bank study, an estimated 33 million
people worldwide farm tobacco either full or part

“Smoking Causes Healthcare Costs to Skyrocket”
False. Last year, a study commissioned by tobacco
giant Philip Morris made headlines worldwide when
it boasted that smoking saves money for the treasury
of the Czech Republic, thanks in part to the early
demise of smokers, which reduces the government’s
obligations in healthcare, pensions, and housing costs
for the elderly. The study is filled with mistakes that
invalidate its finding, but it still contains a grain of
truth: Smokers’ shorter lives do compensate partly
for their excess healthcare costs while alive.
Adult smokers experience a life expectancy reduc-
tion on the order of six years.

“Declining Profits Have Driven Big Tobacco
Into Developing Countries”
Wrong. As smoking has declined in the devel-
oped world, multinational tobacco companies have
moved aggressively into middle- and low-income
nations in recent years, especially in Asia and Eastern
Europe. They also have established strongholds in
Latin America and Africa. In all such countries, the
industry employs sophisticated marketing techniques
to compete with domestic brands, increase daily con-
sumption among existing smokers, and encourage
traditionally low-smoking groups (e.g., young
women in many Asian societies) to “modernize” by
becoming smokers. According to one study, Western
marketing of cigarettes increased cigarette consump-
tion in four Asian countries by about 10 percent.
Tobacco consumption in the West has declined at
the same time that the industry has expanded into the
East. But correlation is not causation. The decline in
smoking in the developed world has not led to a decline
in profits, since sales have fallen proportionately much
slower than prices have risen.

“Higher Cigarette Taxes Curb Smoking”
Absolutely. The law of demand—raise prices
and quantity demanded will fall—holds for all com-
modities, even the most addictive. In fact, that law
applies to all species. Consider laboratory rats: If
forced to push a lever more times to get a dose of
drug—the number of lever pushes constituting the
price they face—addicted lab rats decrease the amount
of drug they administer to themselves. In the case of
humans and cigarettes, a 10 percent increase in price
will prompt a decrease in quantity demanded by
about 4 percent in rich countries and twice as much in
low- and middle-income countries.

“Higher Cigarette Taxes Encourage Smuggling”
True, all other things being equal (but they’re
not). The thriving black market in cigarettes is rep-
resented by two kinds of smugglers. One group
consists of individuals and gangs who bootleg cig-
arettes from low-tax (hence low-price) countries to
nearby high-tax (high-price) countries, generally
covering small distances. These so-called buttleg-
gers are responsible for a relatively small fraction
of the illicit trade in cigarettes. The other criminal
element, responsible for the majority of illicit
trade, worth $25 billion to $30 billion annually,
consists of large-scale enterprises smuggling huge
consignments of cigarettes over great distances.
Buttleggers pay taxes in low-tax countries and
move their product to nearby higher-priced

And while the tobacco industry attempts to blame
high taxes for smuggling, the industry itself appears to
tolerate and actively encourage smuggling, as indicat-
ed by recent court cases in which tobacco company exec-
utives were found guilty of complicity in smuggling
operations. In 1998, for instance, Northern Brands
International, Inc. (an affiliate of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco
Holdings), pled guilty to smuggling-related charges and
paid $15 million in fines and forfeitures. The industry
benefits from the increased sales associated with smug-
gling, and the multinationals benefit in particular by
increased consumption of their prominent brands.

“Tobacco Subsidies Encourage Smoking”
Correct, though not always for the obvious
reason. Numerous governments around the world
support farmers who grow tobacco. In some coun-
tries in Africa, both governments and multination-
al tobacco companies assist farmers in acquiring
seed and farming equipment. In many European
countries, farmers receive direct governmental sub-
sidies for their tobacco production. Export subsi-
dies are also in effect in Europe. The result is more
abundant supplies of tobacco at lower prices.
However, the net effect on cigarette consumption is
often remarkably small.

“Cigarette Tax Increases Burden the Poor”
Not necessarily. In most nations, a larger
proportion of the poor smoke than is the case for the
rich. As a result, the poor often spend a substantially
larger proportion of their income on cigarettes and
bear a disproportionate share of the burden of a cig-
arette tax.

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