How many smoking deaths in the US would be acceptable?

You would think, would you not, that the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, MD, would understand a few basic facts about smoking and nicotine addiction. Yet, although he acknowledges that smoking is a pretty serious problem, causing more than 480,000 deaths in the US every year, in a press release of 28 July 2017 he said he wants to have ‘an appropriate balance between regulation and encouraging development of innovative tobacco products that may be less dangerous than cigarettes.’

Let us dissect this statement. If he wants to ‘regulate’ cigarettes, rather than abolish them, this implies there are some circumstances where smoking is legitimate or acceptable. And what, may I ask, would those be? Then he wants the regulation, such as it may turn out, to encourage the development of new tobacco products that may (or, presumably, may not) be less dangerous than ordinary cancer sticks.

And his idea to achieve this, as he somewhat clumsily puts it, is by:

Envisioning a world where cigarettes would no longer create or sustain addiction, and where adults who still need or want nicotine could get it from alternative and less harmful sources, needs to be the cornerstone of our efforts – and we believe it’s vital that we pursue this common ground.

Now, who are these adults who ‘need or want nicotine’? No one needs nicotine – except those who are addicted to it – and these are the very people who want it for that reason. So what the brave Dr Gottlieb envisages is:

…lowering nicotine levels [in cigarettes which] could decrease the likelihood that future generations become addicted to cigarettes and allow more currently addicted smokers to quit.

Let me lead Dr Gottlieb back to reality. If we wait generations for the decreased likelihood of people being addicted to cigarettes, how many will die from smoking in the meantime? All smokers are currently addicted (to nicotine) – that’s why they smoke. Further, they don’t need to be ‘allowed’ to quit; they just need to quit! And the only thing that will allow the happy state of universal non-smoking to come about within the foreseeable future is to abolish tobacco.

Instead, the envisioning goes on to:

…afford the agency time to explore clear and meaningful measures to make tobacco products less toxic, appealing and addictive.

Presumably it is not their intention to explore unclear and meaningless measures, but this is in effect what all the envisioning will amount to. In any case, I wonder what degree of reduction in toxicity, appealability and addictiveness they have in mind?

Even if such unspecified degrees of reduction in these three attributes were possible, how many people dying in the US every year from tobacco-related diseases would Dr Gottlieb find acceptable? All tobacco products are addictive because they contain nicotine. If the nicotine is somehow reduced so that cigarettes are ‘less addictive’ no one will want to smoke them.

Anyway, addiction is addiction; it makes no sense to talk of degrees of addiction. And even if this were true, someone who is deemed to be only lightly addicted may think he doesn’t have a problem and therefore has no need to quit, and someone who is regarded as being heavily addicted may think quitting will be too difficult so she won’t want to try to quit.

We are back to the basic problem: why envisage only reducing tobacco related disease and death rather than abolishing them by abolishing tobacco?

Text © Gabriel Symonds

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