Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Selling high nicotine smokes to addicts & low nicotine smokes to new smokers

The key addictive agent (perhaps not the only one) in cigarettes is nicotine. This has led to proposals to cut the nicotine content of cigarettes so that it is more difficult for new smokers to get addicted. The difficulty with this proposal – and the failure of the so-called ‘low tar derby’ that sought to encourage tobacco companies to produce low nicotine cigarettes – is that addicted smokers will need to smoke more to get their levels of nicotine to equilibrium. By smoking more they ingest more tobacco specific carcinogens which is potentially damaging to heath. It is these carcinogens not nicotine that cause most health damage.

In fact, since the late 1970s I have often seen exactly the opposite suggestion made – to increase the nicotine content of cigarettes. The idea is to reduce the number of smokes an addicted smoker needs to light up to get to their equilibrium level of addiction. Of course now the problem is that new smokers get addicted more quickly ultimately leading to increased health damages by a different route.

I’ve played around with schemes to sell two types of cigarettes – one for new smokers (with low nicotine) and one for addicted smokers (with high nicotine) but have never convinced myself that they would work. This proposal from a former US FDA employee however seeks a reform along these lines based on selling two types of cigarettes.

‘When it comes to the health of our children, two cigarettes may be better than one. Young smokers who begin their habit with nicotine-laden cigarettes need a cigarette that will not leave them to later fight the ravages of addiction.

Experts tell us that teenagers often begin smoking to copy their peers and others whom they see smoking. As adults, however, they continue smoking largely because of the addictive qualities of nicotine. (90% of smokers regret having begun smoking and most make efforts to stop.) This means that in the absence of addictive levels of nicotine in their cigarettes, most young smokers would ultimately quit.

A two-cigarette strategy would prohibit young smokers from buying addictive cigarettes. The tobacco industry is capable of producing cigarettes that are virtually free of nicotine, and regulators could develop clear standards for non-addictive cigarettes. (Disclosure: My law firm represents tobacco companies, but I have recused myself from that work.)

The age to purchase addictive cigarettes might be set at 21. Better yet, sales of addictive cigarettes could be restricted to individuals born 19 or more years before the two-cigarette strategy was put into effect. Under this approach, 18-year-olds who start smoking non-addictive cigarettes would be prohibited from switching to addictive cigarettes even after they turned 21. In addition, a higher federal excise tax on addictive cigarettes than on non-addictive cigarettes would create a financial incentive for smokers of all ages, including scofflaw adolescents, to select non-addictive cigarettes’.

Why am I sceptical of this idea? I am not sure whether it can be made to work. The best way to market a cigarette product to kids is to declare it adults only – it’s the ‘forbidden fruit’ idea.

How would you effectively prohibit youth from buying high nicotine cigarettes?

If you could effectively discriminate between type of user I would support this plan and bolster it by increasing the nicotine content of cigarettes sold to addicts so they would smoker less.


derrida derider said...

True, you don't want the high-nicotine cigs to look glamoruous. But that's easy fixed - make the age limit 35, not 21.

hc said...

dd, I cannot rember where but I have read that the best way of selling cigarettes to kids is to describe them as 'for adults only'. I am unconvinced that this guy's policy or your variant would work for this reason.

One thing you might say about this proposal is that trying it might do no harm. The worst that could happen is that you return to the status quo.

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