Press Box

Nicotine Madness

The stupid drug story of the week.

Journalists give tobacco companies the same benefit of the doubt they do alleged baby-rapists, which is to say none. And who can blame them? For a century, the tobacco industry has lied and obfuscated about their products at every turn.

Yet serial liars aren’t automatically guilty of every charge leveled against them. Even the tobacco company baddies, who took a wicked beating this week in the press, deserve a fair hearing before we hang them.

The news hook this week was a Commonwealth of Massachusetts report about nicotine yields in cigarettes increasing by 10 percent since 1998. The Boston Globe’s headline reports “Cigarettes pack more nicotine,” and the story’s lede alleges that the boost makes “it tougher for smokers to quit.” The story quotes Massachusetts officials, anti-smoking advocates from public health and law, but no critics of the report. The tobacco companies declined, across the board, to talk to the press.

The Washington Post story, titled “Nicotine up Sharply in Many Cigarettes,” states that “the higher levels theoretically could make new smokers more easily addicted and make it harder for established smokers to quit.” Only slightly more skeptical than the Globe, the closest the story comes to finding a critic of the report is a University of California at San Francisco physician who says, “I don’t think we know what the consequences are for the population in terms of addictive behavior and how hard it is for people to quit.”

The New York Times  headlines its story from the Associated Press “Nicotine Levels Rose 10 Percent in Last Six Years, Report Says.” The lede sources to the report the observation that the increase makes “it harder to quit and easier to be addicted.” No critics are quoted. CBS News and ABC News broadcasts take the same tack as the newspapers, quoting public-health officials and other anti-tobacconists complaining about the dangers of increased nicotine. The New York Times editorial, “Raising Nicotine, on the Sly,” deduces from the report that tobacco companies are “sneakily making cigarettes more addictive.”

That every form of tobacco—cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chew, snuff, “light” cigarettes—is injurious to health is a given. If you want to live a long, healthful life, you should avoid tobacco; if you currently partake of the weed, you should quit. But the shoddy 15-page Massachusetts report (PDF) and the lazy news stories it generated forgo science for alarmist public-health propaganda. Hate the tobacco industry as much as you want, but not over this.

Cigarette testing has long been controversial. In the late 1960s, the Federal Trade Commission ordered tobacco companies to report tar and nicotine yields in cigarettes. It hoped that armed with data, smokers would steer away from high-tar cigarettes on the assumption that they were more dangerous than low-tar smokes. The FTC reported (PDF) results from the tests from 1968 through 1998.

If you click here, you’ll see that tar and nicotine yields dropped steadily from 1968 to 1998. (The FTC weighted its final tar and nicotine results by sales of specific brands to better reflect the actual overall consumption in the market by smokers.)

The FTC still collects cigarette emissions data but stopped reporting it to the public in the late 1990s because of a variety of real criticisms. For one, researchers contended that FTC-approved smoking machines did not accurately mimic the way humans smoke cigarettes, making the “nicotine yields” invalid. For another, the tobacco industry was cravenly exploiting the FTC reports, as internal documents from tobacco giant BAT cited in a recent Lancetarticle show. The Lancet authors found that BAT deliberately developed “cigarettes that produced low yields under standard testing protocols, whereas in consumers’ hands they elicited more intensive smoking and provided higher concentrations of tar and nicotine to smokers.” BAT also ignored ethical questions raised by its senior scientists, the article reports.

The Lancet authors continue:

Despite the risk to consumers, BAT pursued this product strategy and paired it with an equally successful marketing campaign that promoted these cigarettes as low-tar alternatives for health-concerned smokers. BAT was aware of the duplicitous nature of this strategy and set a policy to suppress outside knowledge of their research on smoking behaviour.

BAT and the industry wanted to preserve the FTC method for measuring emissions for as long as possible because the figures created the illusions that 1) cigarettes were getting safer because tar and nicotine yields were falling; and 2) the government was somehow endorsing low-tar cigarettes as the healthy alternative to high-tar cigarettes.

Massachusetts law, however, required the tobacco companies to continue reporting emission data and specifies a different method of measurement than the FTC’s. (The Massachusetts method is described on Page 3 of the report.)

How much of an improvement is the Massachusetts method? Not much, judging from “Cigarette Yields and Human Exposure: A Comparison of Alternative Testing Regimens,” published in the August 2006 issue of Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention. No matter how clever the design, a smoking machine can’t smoke cigarettes the way people do because it doesn’t smoke them for the same reason: People smoke cigarettes for the drug effect, namely the nicotine, and devise individual strategies for extracting the nicotine dose they desire. Or, as the Lancet article puts it, “Smokers compensate for low-yield cigarettes by smoking them more intensely, to the extent that the machine-tested tar and nicotine levels currently bear little or no relation to the actual levels of tar and nicotine delivered to smokers.”

The “Cigarette Yields” article further warns that the machines don’t produce measures of human exposure and “tell us nothing about human uptake of smoke constituents.” So, feel free to dump from your brain all the scary news coverage about today’s cigarettes being automatically more addictive.

I became suspicious of the Massachusetts report after reading an insightful post in the Aug. 30 Knight Science Journalism Tracker about the press coverage the study was getting. (I recommend the KSJ Tracker to all skeptical journalists, whether they cover science or not.) Writer Boyce Rensberger *  notes that the press was making a big deal about average nicotine yield growing 10 percent between 1998 and 2004. But there was no “smooth upward trend,” he writes. Nicotine yield dropped in 1999, 2002, and 2003.

If tobacco companies are consciously boosting nicotine yields, by what strange logic would they also trim them some years? Could it be that 1) the methodology behind the Massachusetts results isn’t consistent; or 2) the mix of cigarette brands tested changes sufficiently from year to year to alter average nicotine yields?

The tobacco industry knows that tobacco consumers adapt their smoking techniques to extract the dose of nicotine they crave. If that’s the case, what incentive do they have to boost nicotine yields? Wouldn’t it be in their interests to produce low-nicotine cigarettes in hopes that smokers purchase and consume more of them in their pursuit of nicotine?

The text from the Massachusetts report contradicts the idea that tobacco companies need to increase nicotine yield to hook customers. Page 10 states, “The results tests [sic] performed in accordance with [Massachusetts Department of Public Health] regulations demonstrates the highly addictive potential of nearly all brands of cigarettes—whether full flavor, ‘light,’ or ‘ultra-light.’ ”

I ran the 15-page Massachusetts report past David Hammond, the lead author in both the Lancet and Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention articles, for his appraisal, and I’m pleased to publish his 1,000-word rebuke as a sidebar.

In it, he writes:

We should not interpret a 10% reduction in nicotine emissions as a decrease in addictive potential; thus, we should not interpret cigarettes with a 10% increase as more addictive. Any suggestion that the brands in 2005 are more addictive than the 1998 studies would require much more evidence than the changes in emission levels depicted in the report. Indeed, I would not argue that the modern cigarette is any less addictive than the 1950’s cigarette despite the fact they cigarettes in the 1950’s had many more times the nicotine emission levels than current brands. Cigarettes remain both incredibly addictive and lethal, and manufacturers have designed cigarettes to produce deceptively low nicotine readings on the standard test while delivering more than enough nicotine to create and sustain addiction.*

By taking Massachusetts’ cue and obsessing on the nicotine yields, the press inadvertently promoted lower-nicotine blends as somehow less addictive and more safe when no “safer” or “less addictive” cigarette exists.

With enemies like Massachusetts and the press, the tobacco industry doesn’t need friends.


When nonsmokers like me look in the mirror, we say, “I can’t wait until tomorrow because I get better looking every day.” Light me up with your e-mail: (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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* Correction, Sept. 5: The original version of this story misidentified the author of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker item about nicotine yield. It was Boyce Rensberger, substituting for Charles Petit.Click here  to return to the corrected sentence.

*Correction, Sept. 6: David Hammond submitted a slightly revised critique of the Massachusetts study, which Jack Shafer posted as a sidebar. However, Shafer failed to update the body of the piece where the critique was also quoted. The revised paragraph has now been substituted.