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Thursday, 5 August 2010


Tobacco, notoriously, is not very good for you. Consequently there is an ongoing battle between the people who sell it and - more-or-less - the rest of the human race. The former want to push more cigarettes; the latter want to stay alive. The battle is quite instructive in a game-theoretic way. In particular, the sellers carefully manipulate the level of the addictive component (nicotine) to maximize the number of cigarettes that they sell.

When there is a large number of smokers, it makes sense for the tobacco companies to reduce the nicotine level; that way they sell more (and so make more money) as people have to buy more to get the level of nicotine in their blood up. But as the number of people smoking drops, the companies raise the nicotine level in order to create more addicts among people (particularly teenagers) who only try two or three cigarettes. The reduction in the number of smokers in recent years (at least in the developed world) is the reason that the companies have been cynically upping the dose. (See, for example, this article in The Washington Post.)

Those on the other side who are concerned with keeping us all alive deprecate this, and advocate controls on the maximum nicotine levels allowed. Jack Henningfield and Neal Benowitz in a British Medical Journal editorial, say: "Possible strategies to be overseen by the Food and Drug Administration could include ... restrictions on the amount of nicotine in tobacco products..."

A single cigarette contains about 10 mg of nicotine. It is one of the more poisonous substances known - about 60 mg will kill a non-smoker and about double that will kill a smoker. It is a particularly effective insecticide, which is why tobacco plants have evolved a metabolic pathway to make it, of course. But nicotine is one of the less harmful ingredients in tobacco. The things in there that really kill people are the tars, benzene, formaldehyde, and so on in the smoke, and the carbon monoxide that is consequent on the combustion that creates it.

So it may well be that restricting nicotine levels in cigarettes is the wrong way to go. The authorities should require them to have a minimum nicotine level. That level would be set so high that non-smokers starting would immediately throw up, thus putting them off, and so that smokers would only need to smoke one cigarette a day to get their dose, thus much reducing their exposure to all the substances that really harm them.

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