Big Nicotine, Part II: Addiction and the “Cult of Pharmacology”

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its intention to lower the nicotine content of cigarettes to, ideally, “minimally or nonaddictive” levels. Public health advocates celebrated the decision; on the other hand, Big Tobacco investors began dumping shares at the prospect of supplying an ever-more-elastic demand.

Cigarette critics and capitalists alike belong to what Richard DeGrandpre calls the “cult of pharmacology,” a system of belief that dominates American drug discourse. Rooted in modernist faith in understanding the world through scientific approach, by the early twentieth century many considered drug experience to be a straightforward process of brain and body chemistry, without regard for concepts we might recognize today as set and setting. Historically contingent forces divide drugs into “angel” and “demon” categories, but their effects are similarly reduced to biological mechanism: “‘soul’ was reinterpreted as ‘mind,’ and ‘spirit’ was reinterpreted as ‘biochemistry.’”

But cults are given to blind faith, so it is worth considering the extent to which substances are to blame for problem use.Read More »

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Big Nicotine, Part I: Big Tobacco’s Drug Problem

Just over a week ago, the United States Food and Drug Administration announced what new FDA chief Dr. Scott Gottileb called “a cornerstone of our new and more comprehensive approach to effective tobacco regulation”: an initiative to reduce the nicotine content in cigarettes to “minimally or nonaddictive” levels. The 2009 Tobacco Control Act gave FDA authority to reduce any “additives, constituents…, or other component of a tobacco product.”

Obama Tobacco
President Barack Obama signing the Tobacco Control Act

Public health historian Robert Proctor was thrilled. “This is exceptionally good news for tobacco control, and for human health,” he wrote last week in the New York Times. Not so for companies like Altria and British American Tobacco, whose stock value fell within an hour of the statement (and recovered somewhat before the closing bell).

Big Tobacco was reeling for good reason: nicotine is the primary addictive component of cigarette smoking, not incidentally the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. The addictive capacity of nicotine is now practically indisputable. For over sixty years, government regulators, independent researchers, and tobacco company scientists have investigated the extent of that capacity and the danger it poses when delivered via tar-laden cigarettes.Read More »

The Strange and Complicated History of Patenting the E-Cigarette

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is brought to you by Camille Higham, a patent attorney in Jacksonville, Florida, with extensive experience researching e-cigarettes. 

About a year ago, I wrote about e-cigarettes in a blog that is woefully neglected now. At that time, I thought e-cigarettes may fall between a novelty and a passing fad. Now I am still skeptical that e-cigarettes will ever supplant traditional cigarettes, primarily because of how deeply tobacco is entrenched in our history, for better or worse. E-cigarettes are undeniably increasing in popularity, and if they do edge out tobacco-based cigarettes, ironically, it is the Big Tobacco companies, with their deep pockets and market influence, who may be best equipped to make that happen.

Read More »

World War I, Part 5: Tobacco in the Trenches

Unlike my previous posts, today’s entry focuses on the war as a whole rather than on a specific army. Tobacco was ubiquitous at the front and ever-present in prewar society. The war ushered in several changes to European smoking culture: Pipes began to fall out of fashion as cigarettes became more popular, and women smoked more in the postwar era as wartime social changes led to questioning of nineteenth-century gender norms. This is most famously embodied in the the “Flapper” archetype.

At the war’s outbreak, pipe smoking was the most common form of tobacco smoking in the militaries of Europe. Soldiers usually received packets of loose tobacco and matches with their rations. Pipe and cigar smoking were also associated with nineteenth-century ideas about masculinity. Cigarettes, although available, were not nearly as popular as pipes and cigars during this period. The war ushered in nothing short of a revolution in American and European tobacco cultures. It was also a period where modern cigarette advertising began.

The Tsarist regime asked civilians to donate tobacco for the war effort. Source: http://riowang.blogspot.com/2011/06/killer-game.html
The Tsarist regime asked civilians to donate tobacco for the war effort.
Source: http://riowang.blogspot.com/2011/06/killer-game.html

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Aesthetics and the Failure of the FDA’s Cigarette Warning Labels

Last year the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a series of nine new warning labels for cigarettes. The labels were designed around a series of graphic images intended to highlight the dangers of smoking – a man exhaling smoke through a hole in his throat, a pair of diseased lungs next to a pair of healthy ones, a mouth covered with cancerous lesions, and so on.

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The images were surprisingly explicit, and prompted a storm of controversy. The FDA also instituted rules requiring that the labels cover one-half of the front side of all cigarette packages, that the images be rotated regularly, and other similar measures. Not surprisingly, the tobacco companies sued to stop the new rules from going into effect; not long after, a district court judge in Washington ruled that the new regulations were unconstitutional on free-speech grounds. The labels never went into effect, and the people of America continue to be free to buy cigarettes without having to confront images of diseased lips and people blowing smoke through holes in their necks. Read More »