It was a shock to learn from the latest surgeon general’s report that, because of changes in the design and composition of cigarettes, smokers today face a higher risk of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than smokers in 1964, despite smoking fewer cigarettes. It is equally shocking to learn now that some of today’s cigarettes may be more addictive than those smoked in past years, most likely because the manufacturers are designing them to deliver more nicotine to the lungs to induce and sustain addiction. That devious tactic requires a strong response by regulators.
A report published last week in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research found that while the nicotine content of cigarettes has remained relatively stable for more than a decade, the amount of that nicotine delivered to the machines researchers use as surrogates for smokers has been rising. The researchers, from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the University of Massachusetts Medical School, analyzed data from four manufacturers as required by state law. The findings varied among the companies and brands, but the overall trend led the researchers to conclude that changes in cigarette design have increased the efficiency of delivering nicotine to a smoker’s lungs. Young people who experiment with smoking may thus become addicted more easily and existing smokers may find it harder to quit.
Those provocative findings will need to be verified by other experts but are consistent with the surgeon general’s report. That report, issued on Jan. 17, found that some of today’s cigarettes are more addictive than those from earlier decades, based on the findings of a Federal District Court judge in 2006 who had access to industry documents spelling out how cigarettes were designed to make them more addictive. The industry’s tactics included designing filters and selecting cigarette paper to maximize the ingestion of nicotine and adding chemicals to make cigarettes taste less harsh and easier to inhale deeply.
Nicotine itself, in addition to its addictive qualities, has harmful effects on the human body. The surgeon general’s report concluded that nicotine activates biological pathways that increase the risk for disease, adversely affects maternal and fetal health during pregnancy, and can have lasting adverse consequences for brain development in fetuses and adolescents. At high doses, nicotine is toxic and sometimes lethal. A rapid increase in nicotine blood levels can also raise heart rate and blood pressure and narrow arteries around the heart.
Still, the main problem is that nicotine addicts people to smoking, which exposes them to a host of toxic ingredients. Regulators will need to find ways to block the designs, ingredients and marketing strategies that increase the amount of nicotine taken in by smokers.
* This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.