Thursday, July 01, 2010

FDA: non-filtered cigarettes aren't any more dangerous than ultra-lights

(Warning: non-sports post)

Last month, the USA banned the use of words such as "mild" or "light" to describe cigarettes. The government claims that "light" cigarettes are no safer than regular ("full flavored") cigarettes. There are lots of reports about this on the web, such as this one from the CBC:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says cigarette packs no longer can feature names such as "light," "mild," "medium" or "low," which many smokers wrongly think are less harmful than "full-flavour" cigarettes.

To which I say: I don't believe the "wrongly" part. The idea that light cigarettes aren't less harmful than regular cigarettes just doesn't make sense to me.

First, consider this: if light cigarettes aren't less harmful than regular cigarettes, that implies that regular cigarettes can't be *more* harmful than light cigarettes. It's simple logic and simple mathematics. If A is not less then B, then B is not greater than A. Right?

I just can't believe that if you take a "light" cigarette, and take the filter off of it, the resulting cigarette is no more harmful than with the filter on it. Do you believe that? If you do believe it, then, if you're a smoker of light cigarettes, why not switch to the stronger, unfiltered ones? The government itself says the stronger ones aren't any worse! Apparently, you can take a light cigarette, rip off the filter, and add as much tar and other carcinogens as you want -- but still, the original light cigarette is not less dangerous than the modified one!

If it had been the cigarette companies saying that, instead of the government, the s**t would have hit the fan, wouldn't it? Imagine an ad for unfiltered cigarettes that said, "Hey, these have more tar and carcinogens than normal. But switch to these, since they're still no worse for you than normal filtered cigarettes."

Can you believe that the government, and the anti-smoking groups, would let any tobacco company get away with that? Not a chance. It would take about five seconds before lawyers started looking for people who believed the tobacco companies and decided to smoke non-light cigarettes, and then got cancer. The lawsuits would fly.

Seriously, I don't think anyone really believes that the stronger cigarettes aren't worse for you. What I think is happening is that there's a moral panic with regard to smoking, a panic that makes everyone scared to tell the truth because it's politically incorrect. In today's anti-smoking climate, the goal isn't to describe the issues impartially -- the goal is to denounce the evil. The object is to never say anything that sounds like you're condoning the moral evil. So, you can say "light cigarettes aren't better" but you can't say "regular cigarettes aren't worse" -- even though those two statements *mean exactly the same thing*. The words "aren't worse," when applied to the evil of smoking -- any kind of smoking -- sound like you're condoning the activity, and that's not allowed. Every sentence you utter has to appear to support the position that smoking is wrong and bad and evil.

Now, the anti-smokers do have some reasonable arguments about why light cigarettes aren't as "less unsafe" as they may appear. They argue that in order to get their nicotine, smokers have to puff harder on "light" cigarettes, which negates their "lightness". They say that smokers block some of the airholes in the filters of light cigarettes, and so get a stronger dose of carcinogens than stated on the label, which are measured by smoking machines in labs. And so it all evens out in the end.

It does sound like there's some truth to that ... if you don't think about it too much. If you do think about it a bit, you realize that it doesn't work for other things, does it? For instance, restaurants in New York City now have to post calorie counts for all their menu items. The idea is that customers will be scared off by high calorie counts and eat less.

If that works for food, why shouldn't it work for smoking? Why is it that it's presumed that smokers won't end their smoke break until they reach a certain nicotine dose, but not that eaters won't end their meal until they've been satisfied by a certain calorie dose? It seems to me that either the food premise or the nicotine premise must be wrong.

Even if you accept the premise that smokers measure by nicotine, that still isn't enough to justify the conclusion. Suppose it's true that smokers automatically compensate for low nicotine levels by smoking harder. All things being equal, wouldn't that make high-nicotine cigarettes safer? You might only have to smoke half a cigarette to get your nicotine fix (and nicotine itself isn't that dangerous, which is why the nicotine patch is such an improvement over smoking).

But remember the scandal when it was revealed that cigarette companies artificially boosted their cigarettes' nicotine content? By this argument, you'd think that they'd be hailed as heroes -- you could get your fix with less smoking! But, no: they were denounced. The higher nicotine levels were taken as evidence that the cigarette companies were trying to get their clients dangerously hooked.

That argument implies that higher nicotine levels are bad for smokers. Doesn't that imply that lower nicotine levels are *less* bad for smokers? Again, if A is worse than B, then B must be less bad than A.

Again, if no cigarette is any "less unsafe" than any other cigarette, then how can you criticize the cigarette companies for changing their products' recipes? Again, it seems like it's possible to make a cigarette A that's more dangerous than cigarette B, but, by some miracle that supersedes Aristotelian logic, cigarette B somehow escapes being less dangerous than cigarette A.

Besides, even if smokers do smoke light cigarettes harder, to try to maximize their nicotine, that still doesn't make them all equal. This government document (.pdf) lists tar and nicotine levels for several hundred brands and types of cigarettes. They all have different ratios. Take, for instance, the third and fourth cigarettes on the list. One is "full-flavored" (regular) with 15 tar and 0.9 nicotine. The other is "light" with 9 tar and 0.7 nicotine.

Do the arithmetic. With the regular cigarette of that brand, you can smoke one cigarette and get a 0.9 dose of nicotine with 15 tar. With the light, you can smoke 1.29 of those cigarettes, and get the same 0.9 nicotine dose with only 11.57 tar. Doesn't it seem obvious that the light cigarette gives you less tar for the same nicotine hit? Isn't less tar going to be less harmful than more tar? So isn't the light cigarette in this case indeed going to be less harmful than the regular cigarette?

It's not just tar. According to this article (and many others), there are some 4,000 compounds in cigarette smoke, many of which are harmful or carcinogenic. That is: the health risks of smoking come from the chemicals inhaled. But if cigarette A, with X micrograms of carcinogens, is no "less bad" than cigarette B, with 2X micrograms of carcinogens ... then doesn't it follow that smoking one pack of A isn't any "less bad" than smoking two packs of A? Your body only knows the dose of carcinogens -- it doesn't care how many cigarettes it took to get that way. (Otherwise, we could cure cancer by giving everyone a single two-ton cigarette to smoke over their lifetime. One cigarette won't kill you!)

In a just world, the government would lay out the exact risks from different levels of tar, nicotine, and other carcinogens, brand by brand, and let smokers choose what level of risk they're willing to tolerate. But there's a moral panic out there. Anti-smoking groups seem to believe that it's OK withhold risk information from smokers, and even lie to them, in order to avoid acknowledging that there are less risky (but still dangerous) alternatives that some smokers might prefer.

And it's all because "less harmful" sounds like it's off-message. It's like saying "rape is less harmful than murder" -- it's true, but unpalatable. It doesn't come down hard enough on rape for our taste. If you choose not to think about it, your brain might register only the words "rape" and "not" and "bad" and come to the wrong conclusion. But your discomfort, your hysterical reaction, and your failure to think about it do not make the original statement any less true.

You know what it's like? It's exactly like when some religions don't want to teach teenagers about condoms. They're happy to tell stories about how condoms don't reduce the risk of disease entirely (which is technically true), but they won't actually discuss just how much they *do* reduce the risk (a lot). They refuse to acknowledge that oral sex is safer than penetrative sex. They claim to care about preventing harm, but, when you look at their actions instead of their words, what they *really* care about is preventing sex.

Smoking is the new sex. The only politically correct policy is to promote abstinence, even if you have to lie shamelessly about the risks.



At Thursday, July 01, 2010 10:23:00 AM, Blogger Greg Finley said...

Awesome post.

I don't have much to add, but I makes me think about how the government portrays all illegal drugs as equally bad, when some are obviously more damaging than others.

At Thursday, July 01, 2010 10:45:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I'm confused. You refer to non-filtered, but the article makes no mention of non-filters. Full-flavored from my understanding would be the "normal" filter on a "regular" pack.

Non-filtered smokers do have a higher risk, but this distinction is only for the changes in filters from "light" to "normal".

At Thursday, July 01, 2010 12:12:00 PM, Blogger Jeff J said...

OK, first:

Ignoring the highly relevant information in the link above... Holy disproportional reaction.

In a just world, these 1500 words would condemn companies who profit from deliberately killing people rather than an agency that is, at worst, telling a white lie in a possibly misguided effort to get less people to die at those companies' hands.

But then again, this is a Government agency and in some worldviews private=holy, government=ultimate evil, and that's that.

"...let smokers choose what level of risk they're willing to tolerate. But there's a moral panic out there. Anti-smoking groups seem to believe that it's OK withhold risk information from smokers, and even lie to them, in order to avoid acknowledging that there are less risky (but still dangerous) alternatives that some smokers might prefer."

Do you really think nicotene addicts will consult a government-published pdf before choosing a brand?

These anti-smoking groups understand marketing better than you. They understand that people are awful at evaluating risk. They understand that people are not rational actors from some free-market, free-will fetishist fantasy world. If a false blanket statement kills less people than honest full disclosure, so be it.

At Thursday, July 01, 2010 12:24:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...


Thanks, I'll investigate that. I found one post that argued that filters aren't safer than non-filters, but I'll keep looking. Either way, you can change "non-filtered" to "full-flavored" as appropriate.

At Thursday, July 01, 2010 12:25:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...


Sounds like we agree on the main point, which is that "light cigarettes are no less harmful than regular cigarettes" is not true.

We differ on whether the lie is acceptable or not, but we seem to agree that it's a lie (white or otherwise).

At Friday, July 02, 2010 1:06:00 AM, Blogger David Barry said...

They claim to care about preventing harm, but, when you look at their actions instead of their words, what they *really* care about is preventing sex.

I don't think this analogy is valid. Part of the reason for marketing 'light' cigarettes is (presumably) to get non-smokers to start smoking. So the poorer future health of existing smokers might be more than offset by the improved future health of otherwise-would-be smokers, and this net improvement is the overall goal.

At Sunday, July 04, 2010 12:26:00 AM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

David: yes, I suppose that's possible, that anti-smoking groups dislike light cigarettes because there would be less harm with fewer smokers having worse health effects.

But ... I dunno, it just doesn't ring true to me. Suppose a cigarette company came up with a cigarette so light that even with more smokers, there would be less overall harm. Can you see them enthusiastically promoting this new cigarette to smokers? I can't.

For instance, here's an article from Reason pointing out hysterical reactions to water vapor cigarettes, which seem pretty harmless:

It still seems to me like it's just a gut reaction to anything that looks like smoking. I bet if those "e-cigarettes" didn't look like regular smokes, and didn't emit water vapor that looks like smoke, the reaction would be a lot different.

At Saturday, July 10, 2010 2:40:00 AM, Blogger Hank Gillette said...

I'm confused too. The article referenced by Jeff J says that people smoking "light" cigarettes still get an effective dose of nicotine, but doesn't address whether they are any safer. Nicotine itself doesn't seem to be that dangerous in the doses smokers get, although it is highly addictive.

At any rate, it seems possible that "light" cigarettes could be just as dangerous as regular cigarettes. Perhaps the tar measurement doesn't correlate that highly with the amount of carcinogens delivered by cigarettes.

For that matter, filters (which obviously filter something out of the smoke) may not be effective at filtering out the elements of smoke that cause the damage to the lungs and body.


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